By Charlene Baldridge
Beth Henley won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for a little ditty titled “Crimes of the Heart” back in 1981. Three sisters get together to have a little chat right after one of them has just shot her husband. Henley has been setting fire to stage conventions using poor white trash as grist ever since.
“The Jacksonian,” Henley’s new play now being performed at ion theatre in Hillcrest, follows her Southern Gothic vein. Set in 1964, the edifice is a motel tending toward seedy not too far from downtown in Henley’s Southern Gothic hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
Dr. Bill Perch (Dónal Pugh) has been staying at the Jacksonian ever since he and his wife split up. Susan Perch (Beverley Baker) is quite fragile, at least that’s how her husband describes her. Their teenage daughter, Rosy (Nicole Sollazzo), a studious, obedient girl, misses her father, meets him often for dinner, tries to induce her mother to come along, and would feel better if both parents were under the same roof and life could on as before.
The motel culture among the employees is rather less trustworthy as to veracity. Not two long ago there was a robbery/murder at the convenience store nearby, and a Negro man was arrested on rather circumstantial evidence. Fred, the handsome young Jacksonian bartender, (Jake Rosko) was a suspect, but Eva (Kristin Woodburn) his chambermaid fiancée, has provided an alibi, and they are to be married right after Christmas. Suddenly he’s had a change of heart. She’s a simple girl without too many prospects on how to proceed in order to assure her future.
Henley’s play is so simple on the surface, and yet, as one gazes at the diminishing facets of truth, it becomes apparent something is vastly wrong and there is no clear way for out for any of them. I’m not about to spoil a good yarn for the unwary. Believe me, the play will rock you.
I marvel at the company assembled by co-directors Glenn Parris and Claudio Raygoza. The men, Dónal Pugh and Jake Rosko, are known for the punch they can deliver. All the young women are making company debuts, and the youngest is still in high school. Listen to the clarity of their entire company singing, however mournfully. And though the tension is unrelenting, there are gales of mirth in the play. Isn’t it a wonder that any of us gets out alive?
My favorite line, and there are many, is Fred’s remark to Rosy Perch that he can’t marry Eva because she smells like crayons in a dirty room. “Yeah,” Rosy says. “All the colors that you don’t want to use.”
Additional wonders are rife — a detailed accounting of the contents of the hotel by properties designer Melissa Hamilton, what they wear by Mary Summerday, and what kind of light, exactly, we see them in, by Karin Flijian. These are the exacting and the human ways, the tragic ways in we finally see them.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.