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The Jacksonian

Beth Henley's new play set in 1964 Mississippi is well-acted but hopelessly muddled. logo
Amy Madigan and Ed Harris
in The Jacksonian
(© Michael Lamont)
Beth Henley's new work The JacksonianThe Jacksonian, premiering at the Geffen Playhouse, features some of acting's greatest talent -- Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, Amy Madigan and Glenne Headly -- but even the nuances they bring to the work can't save the muddled play, filled with too many dead ends, confusing timelines, and characters that are repugnant yet not as compelling as they should be.

Henley begins the play with the aftermath of a murder, a snippet designed to whet our appetites, and throughout the next 90 minutes, time flip-flops between May and December 1964 in the seedy Mississippi hotel that gives the play its title.

While there, we meet the hotel's bartender, Fred Weber (Pullman) and maid Eva (Headly); one of its residents, Bill Perch (Harris), a drug-addicted dentist; as well as his estranged wife, Susan (Madigan), and daughter Rosy (Bess Rous).

With its ghost in a bloody blanket warning of bad things to come and a mostly empty hotel (designed brilliantly by Walt Spangler), The Jacksonian invokes Stephen King's The Shining. The elements are definitely there for a Grand Guignol horror story, but instead, the work slides into family melodrama, fugitive-on-the-run clichés, and a sprinkling of social commentary about racism, mostly peppered by dialogue that sounds like bad Tennessee Williams.

Spangler's set is highly evocative: the vacancy sign next to the ice machine is obviously homage to the Bates Motel from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and the sparse motel room, with its peeling walls and hideously bland bed sheets, would drive anyone to delirium. The original music by Richard Woodbury is also fantastically creepy.

Under Robert Falls' direction, the cast does its best with the material. Pullman, with a slow drawl and precise peripheral vision, is properly edgy as the mysterious bartender. Headly, both dizzy blonde and bubble-brained racist, has some of the most irreverent lines and gets the biggest laughs.

Madigan and Harris (who are married in real life) have the weakest roles. There are lots of hints about Susan and Bill's history (her mental instability and his family's ugly heritage), but because Henley doesn't explore their characters as fully as she might, the consequences of their actions seem irrelevant. Conversely, Rous wins the audience's affections with her awkward slouch and off-center thought patterns.

The piece is only 89 minutes long and that may also be the big issue. Another act would have maybe brought some direction to this doddering trail.

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