This disturbing tale of a vigilante dentist in the old south who takes gory retribution on a church-bombing Klansman might alternately be titled A Time to Drill. Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) delves into the realm of darkness with her latest play, The Jacksonian, now making its New York premiere with The New Group after debuting at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. If Henley’s goal is to make us squirm in our seats by presenting a series of gruesome images and scenarios, much like a haunted house, mission accomplished. If The Jacksonian aims to leave us with a more lasting fear by playing on our deepest insecurities about a loss of control, it is only partly successful, and no thanks to a big-budget-yet-amateur-feeling production.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi (Henley’s birthplace) circa 1964, The Jacksonian takes its name from the run-down motel in which respected dentist Bill Perch (Ed Harris) has taken refuge during the separation from his wife, Susan (Harris' actual wife, Amy Madigan). They have been living apart since Bill consented to a hysterectomy while Susan was under anesthesia to remove an ovarian cyst. Susan can’t forgive him for that. The motel staff consists of a pervy lock-jawed bartender named Fred (Bill Pullman phoning it in) and a casually racist bimbo housekeeper named Eva (Gleene Headly). Bill’s acne-ridden daughter Rosy visits him in the motel in late December, hoping for a Christmas miracle that will bring her family back together. Since her daddy has been hitting the chloroform (and other illicit drugs), prospects look dim. There’s also the aforementioned medical malpractice, which has piqued the attention of local lawyers and dentist examiners.
Like a rejected Scout Finch prototype, Rosy Perch (Juliet Brett) guides us through this freak show, occasionally breaking up the scenes with cryptic direct-address to the audience. “There’s been an accident,” Brett screeches at us, sounding very much like the love child of Truman Capote in Murder by Death and Zelda Rubenstein in Poltergeist. This ugly little girl has all the spooky, but none of the precocious charm that might make us like her. That’s not to say that I’m fine with the horrible things happening to her family; it’s just that listening to her talk feels very much like hearing a not-particularly-close neighbor complain about her family issues as if we were BFFs.
Harris is far more sympathetic, turning in a nuanced performance despite the clear odiousness of his character. Is the fact that Bill committed his crime of dentistry on an admitted terrorist supposed to make it any more acceptable, any less creepy? Frankly, I’m more disturbed by the ever-increasing embrace of heinous acts of violence in our culture (24, Dexter, A Time to Kill), provided they are committed against people who everyone in the audience agrees are terrible.
But The Jacksonian is less about notions of justice and more about power and control. Henley has chosen potent symbols for her play: Teeth signify power. A dream in which you lose your teeth often accompanies a feeling of powerlessness in one’s waking life. Similarly, drugs are simultaneously compelling and terrifying for the loss of control they provide. Henley has the ingredients for saying something profound about violence and control, but the end result is a lukewarm soup of muddled symbolism. In the absence of coherence, director Robert Falls opts for loud incoherence.
Walt Spangler’s hulking set, consisting of the motel bar, Bill’s room, and a dark alleyway with an ice machine, offers copious realistic details and poor sightlines. This soap opera-esque set seems to have inspired much of the over-the-top acting. In her final scene with Harris, Madigan, clad in a walk-in fur and wildly frizzy hair, hurls Christmas ornaments and profanities at her husband like she was at the Tennessee Williams Olympics.
The stage directions note, “The motel exists as a haunting memory, a sort of purgatory that was Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1964.” This is no shadowy reflection of the past, but a crude recollection of an SNL parody of The Shining that you saw right before you blacked out from too much tequila. (Victoria Jackson was playing Eva that night.) It’s a troubling memory in which Christmas ornaments inexplicably rise from and sink into the furniture and everyone has hideous hair. You’ll be glad to forget it, which thankfully, you will.