A slow, painful and tragic descent into hell takes place at The Jacksonian, Beth Henley’s wholly satisfying new work playing at The Acorn Theatre Off-Broadway on Theatre Row. The show is a meditation on the seedy side of a small southern town, Jackson, Mississippi circa 1964, where racism and the Klan still prevail.
We are introduced to five characters, who inhabit the hotel of the play’s title—Bill Perch (Ed Harris), a local dentist taking refuge in the tattered establishment after beating his possibly unbalanced wife, Susan (Amy Madigan). Though estranged, she visits, along with their daughter, Rosy (Juliet Brett), as he holds out hope for reconciliation. Within the hotel is a ditzy waitress, Eva White (Glenne Headly), who just wants a man to marry and Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) a repulsive and menacing bartender.
As the action progresses, a murder investigation unfolds in the background adding an ominous ambience to the production. Gradually the family dynamics spiral downward, secrets are revealed, and lives are forever changed.
Henley’s tale, full of color and detail, grows slowly until the cataclysmic end. While the story keeps our interest, the strength of the play are the characters she has created and the dynamic performances, primarily by three of the lead actors. Bill Pullman is almost unrecognizable coiffed in an exaggerated pompadour. With deliberate movements and tight-lipped speech he exudes a subdued, but frightening and disturbing sleaze. Glenne Headly is as alluring as she is off-putting in her embodiment of Ms. White—an attractive, calculating, and obtuse woman stuck in a town with no escape and no future. Ed Harris’ depiction of the strait-laced dentist, Bill Perch, who eventually loses everything he holds near and dear is a sight to behold. No one does controlled craziness better then Harris and his performance here is nothing short of brilliant.
Director Robert Falls does a superb job of pacing the show as the production builds to its crescendo. He works so well with the actors, helping them shape their parts into characters we believe in, are repulsed by, and pray for. In lesser hands the roles could have become more cartoonish or southern caricatures.
The Jacksonian, filled with unforgettable performances, playing through November 30th.