The Jacksonian

Had the opportunity the other night to see an outstanding new play at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley, and directed by Tony award-winning director Robert Falls (Death of a Salesman), the story takes place in 1964 inside a seedy old motel, The Jacksonian, located on the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi. Ed Harris (National Treasure) and his real life wife, Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams), play Bill and Susan Perch, a separated couple, trying to work out their differences. Bess Rous is their daughter, Rosy, who serves as the play’s narrator, tying together scenes as the action jumps back and forth over several months.

Ed Harris and Glenne Headly
Ed Harris and Glenne Headly

Bill Pullman (Independence Day) scowls & squinches his way through the story as Fred Weber, a shady bartender at the motel, who hands out drinks and advice, swallows swords, and may have committed robbery & murder. Glenne Headly (Mr. Holland’s Opus) rounds out the cast as Eva White, a saucy maid who desperately wants to get married. In exchange for an engagement ring, she provides Pullman an alibi for the night of the murder. Later when Pullman rejects her, she sets her sights on Harris in a funny, nitrous-oxygen induced, semi-undressed romp.

The Jeffersonian starts out slowly, like a Sunday afternoon on the plantation porch, as we get to know the characters, but builds in quick layers to an unexpected conclusion. Harris gives an excellent understated performance of a man about to explode as he faces his past and likely future. Denying his KKK heritage, he is surviving the situation by focusing on his beloved dentist business, and a steady diet of alcohol, laughing gas, morphine, and chlorophyll.  When he loses his license after pulling every tooth out of a prejudice patient, Harris exudes pure raw emotion, as he watches his life quickly self-destruct. Madigan nails the proper, yet deeply disturbed wife, who has physical/emotional scars from a complete hysterectomy, approved by her husband while she was still under. She hangs on to Harris because she still loves him, but won’t ever let him move back home…or forgive him.

Torn between her stage parents, Bess Rous is the youngest member of the ensemble with the shortest pedigree, yet she makes some interesting choices for Rosy. I loved her physicality, slouching around the hotel, teenage splotches all over her face, bouncing back and forth between an obedient daughter, and a rebel just waiting to break out.

Primarily a drama with a heartbreaking finale, there are liberal laughs sprinkled throughout the production, mostly from Pullman and Rous. Well worth the time if you are in the L.A. area. The show runs 90 minutes without intermission.

The Jacksonian continues in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater through March 25, 2012.

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