Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz aren’t the only real-life husband and wife playing a troubled married couple onstage these days. (They’re currently in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Barrymore). A few blocks southwest, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan have troubles of their own in the New York premiere of Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian. As the play opens, Bill Perch (Harris) is covered in blood, filling up a bucket of ice at the Jacksonian Motel in Jackson, Mississippi. Standing front and center, wrapped in a blanket, his sixteen-year-old daughter, Rosy (Juliet Brett), tells the audience, “There’s been an accident there’s going to be I need to stop an accident at the motel.” The action then shifts between May 1964 and December of that year, on Walt Spangler’s two-part stage, the motel bar on the left, the interior of Bill’s tiny room on the right; Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting signals scene changes. Bill, a successful local dentist, has moved into the motel temporarily while dealing with his wife Susan’s (Madigan) psychological problems. He hangs out at the bar, drinking and talking with creepy bartender Fred Weber (Bill Pullman, looking like an Elvis impersonator gone seriously wrong), who is trying to avoid the advances of motel employee and local floozy Eva White (Glenne Headly), a racist who wants to marry Fred. Bill’s daughter, Rosy, visits him on and off, an extremely strange, mannered, and lonely girl who attracts Fred’s attention, if not her parents’. Later, Susan (Madigan) arrives, a confused woman who still doesn’t know what she wants out of life. Meanwhile, there’s been a robbery and shooting at a local gas station, blamed on a black man who is probably innocent, but Eva can’t wait to see him fried. Everyone’s story converges in a crazy night of Lynchian sex and violence that reveals the darker side of humanity. “Everything in our family is fine,” Rosy tells Eva. Um, not quite.
Pulitzer Prize winner Henley (Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest), who was born in Jackson, has crafted a gripping southern Gothic black comedy with sharp, unpredictable dialogue and heavily stylized direction by Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls (Desire Under the Elms, Talk Radio). An actor’s actor, Harris (Pollock, Fool for Love) gives an exceptional performance as the seemingly stalwart dentist who just wants to have a normal family. Madigan (Twice in a Lifetime, A Lie of the Mind) plays Susan with a tension ready to explode at any moment. Pullman (The Last Seduction; The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) is nearly unrecognizable as the bartender harboring more than a few secrets, while Headly (Dick Tracy, Balm in Gilead) has fun chewing some scenery as the scheming Eva. But it’s Brett (Admission, Still Life with Iris) who packs the biggest punch in a breakout role as Rosy, an unusual, complex, but insightful character in the tradition of such southern truth-telling adolescents as Harper Lee’s Scout and Carson McCullers’s Frankie Adams. The Jacksonian is a quirky, offbeat drama with dark surprises around every corner, a Broadway-caliber production that can be seen through December 22 in a small, intimate theater just down the street from the Great White Way.