There's not a lot of Southern comfort to ease the characters of Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony- and Drama Desk-nominated Beth Henley's Gothic black comedy drama The Jacksonian, having its New York premiere courtesy of The New Group at Theatre Row.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Christmas of 1964, and amid the fiery tensions of racial strife, church bombings, and talk of lynchings, there's a murder and robbery at a gas station near a once-posh motel called The Jacksonian. An elderly black man has been arrested, but swears he's innocent. News of this incident reaches a successful dentist, estranged from his wife and ensconced at the motel, where he receives mysterious visits from the couple's affection-starved, troubled teenage daughter, who's becoming a pawn in the family turmoil.
The holidays are anything but merry when the dentist's wife arrives for a visit that the husband hopes will lead to reconciliation, while a scheming, bigoted hotel maid, desperate to be wed to the very weird hotel restaurant bartender, decides instead to sets her sights on the dentist. As the dentist's world falls apart, he engages with the ditzy maid in a drug-addled bacchanal that has tragic consequences.
"I didn't set out to write a black comedy," says Henley, taking a break from rehearsals. "The vision wasn't easy to come by. Ideas just don't pop out or suddenly dawn on me. Not at all. Not this time! The plot evolved gradually. I don't know where the idea came from. Since I teach [at Loyola Marymount University] and have a son in high school, I don't have the luxury of writing every day.
"When I get home," she continues, "like other mothers, other women, I have to do the laundry and fix dinner. Then, when I go to work in my office, there are distractions. I may be tempted to read a book. When I get serious, however, I go off, isolated, and sit until the inspiration hits. This one took a long time to write."
A Mississippi native long known for spot-on Southern sensibilities that tend toward Gothic farce with caricatured dysfunctional families and unhinged, quirky free spirits, Henley is a prodigious writer with a four-decade-long relationship with not-for-profit companies. Sadly, she has been absent from Broadway since 1982 and her short-lived play The Wake of Jamey Foster (the follow-up to her 1981 Pulitzer-winning and Tony- and Drama Desk-nominated Crimes of the Heart).
The Jacksonian, which received its share of acclaim during its debut in L.A. last year, is her first New York work since the month-long engagement of Motherhood Out Loud for Primary Stages in 2011, for which she was a contributing playwright. As sole playwright, her more recent work on a New York stage was the 2010 production of Family Week for MCC Theater. A planned Broadway revival of her 1981 play, The Miss Firecracker Contest, was announced last year, but never arrived.
With The Jacksonian, instead of an outrageous comedy, Henley has written a play noir. "I didn't want it to unfold in a linear way, but in fractured time," she says. "That really worked for creating an emotional through-line as opposed to a storytelling through-line. It was hard. I spent a lot of time attempting to get it right."
She's abetted by Tony-winning director Robert Falls, artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and a strong cast: Ed Harris, Juliet Brett, Amy Madigan, Glenne Headly, and Bill Pullman. Harris and Madigan are happily married in real life, which adds a bit of irony to their roles.
Told in flashback by the daughter, the play brims with suspense, dark humor, and the surreal. In The Jacksonian, it appears Henley is channeling writers that include the likes of Tracy Letts, and southerners William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O'Connor. An early tag line for the show also revealed the influence of writer-director David Lynch: "The Jacksonian, where you go to bury your secrets, is an unsettling world where the subversive becomes commonplace and the passage of time becomes hauntingly unpredictable."
Though the play uses the signage of the now-razed "highway hotel" called The Jacksonian (Bob Hope, Elvis, Cher, even Roy Rogers and Trigger were among celebrities signing the register), Henley claims that's just a coincidence. "It's also not based on a specific murder and robbery or characters [who] stayed at a motel."
Parts of the play are influenced by major changes in Henley's early life, including her parents' separation (and later divorce) when she was in high school. "That's what we [writers] do," she laughs. "Draw on what we know. Everything I write is an amalgamation. I don't pin any one thing on any one person."
A scene in The Jacksonian is modeled after the time she visited her attorney father-turned-state senator "in his marital exile at a hotel, bringing him a small Christmas tree as a peace offering from mother."
Henley was also drawn to the socio-political landscape of Mississippi in the 1960s. "Growing up then, I was influenced by what was happening and how things were changing. The violence going on in reaction to change affected everyone. I set the play there because I wanted to see how that impacted the personal," she says.
These events forced her to deal with dark places she hadn't previously wanted to explore in her work. "It's taken my whole career to be able to look back at those times with enough distance to be able to write this play. The problem was trying to figure out how to do it, to get raw enough and find the strength to do it."
Director Falls calls The Jacksonian "disturbing, very funny, and very much a Beth Henley play. She's no longer the cozy family writer she was once labeled."
The play also had an impact on Headly. In an interview with TheaterMania, she observed, "Obviously Beth felt compelled to write this play. I sensed a lot of anger, pain, and confusion. It would make explosive theater, and I haven't found many new plays to be explosive. It was scary, dark, and oddly very funny."
Henley admits that "the play may never have happened without the push Glenne gave." Headly helped get the play out there, first getting it into the hands of Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre and later to the contacts at the Geffen Playhouse.
"The play was constantly evolving," Henley explains. "The actors took their characters in directions that enhanced the play. As writer, I can only see so far, and they seemed able to see beyond the mountain. Any time actors have a question or comment, I listen very carefully."
Henley makes a rare admission. "As it did in L.A., The Jacksonian plays differently in front of different audiences. Some find it funny, some don't find it funny at all. The cast is amazed at how varied audience reaction can be, but they just keep playing the truth of the play."