Beth Henley has fired up another batch of spicy, Southern-fried gothic grotesques in “The Jacksonian,” her strongest offering since the Pulitzer-winning “Crimes of the Heart” three decades ago. The secret ingredient at the Geffen appears to be a significant dose of Chicago flavor. Robert Falls helms a stellar cast into a low-keyed but chilling display of everyday psychopathology. The commission of “crimes of the mind” has rarely been made so vivid on any stage.
The very pre-show lighting by Daniel Ionazzi casts a spell. Walt Spangler’s superbly appointed motel interiors – cocktail lounge; single room; and corridor ice machine from left to right – seem positively to throb with the mystery and dread promised by Richard Woodbury’s sound design.
Lights eventually come up on bartender Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) and long-term guest Dr. Bill Perch (Ed Harris). Which isn’t to say illumination is immediately provided on what’s eating this pair of mild-mannered, yet somehow strangely driven professional men a week before Christmas.
Henley plays her dramaturgical cards close to the chest, slowly introducing a trio of ladies for a series of casually chatty encounters familiar from the airy eccentrics of her earlier, lighter work. “I know you think you don’t deserve me,” chirps waitress Eva (Glenne Headly) to putative fiancee Fred, who claims a medically “hardened heart”: “I can’t make a young woman marry a terminal man….You don’t want to make me look bad in the eyes of the Lord? Keep me out of hell, Eva.”
Lonely dentist Bill has been living down the hall for months, hoping for a reconciliation with wife Susan (Amy Madigan), who seems to have more than one screw loose. “I took an arrangement of cauliflowers and irises to the garden club,” she reports. “I thought it was revolutionary. But it went unappreciated and was mocked.”
Also one can short of a six pack is muttering daughter Rosy (Bess Rous), whose Christmas wish is for a wicker wheelchair (yes, she walks perfectly well).
But this is Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, where an elderly black Texaco attendant has been fingered for lynching after the robbery and murder of the station cashier. Nothing is as it seems, and as the five characters and twin stories intersect, the walls of the Jacksonian aren’t thick enough to block out the consequences of racial animus and criminal insanity.
Mountains of character detail are infused within the piece’s brief running time. Headly, Rous and Madigan create broad but carefully shaped portrayals reminiscent of the powerful females in Robert Altman’s richest films.
Meanwhile, Pullman and Harris have never made bolder choices, nor have those choices ever resulted in a stronger payoff. Harris brilliantly, meticulously reduces himself by inches with the aid of tortured memories and the tank of nitrous his trade demands he carries with him. And Pullman’s grim-jawed affability, lacquered Elvis ‘do and willingness to show off his former trade of sword swallower – with a handy butter knife, no less – make for perhaps the finest, quirkiest work of a fine, quirky career to date.
Henley plays fast and loose with chronology, which works, though more literal-minded viewers may need more than the comings and goings of Xmas trappings to signal flashbacks or flash forwards. And she hasn’t completely integrated Rosy’s direct address and creepy commentary with the girl’s moody interactions with her elders.
But this is carping. Henley and “The Jacksonian” earn a place alongside Flannery O’Connor for the searing investigation of twisted pathology to be found both above and below the Mason-Dixon line.