The Jacksonian, a bloodstained, 90-minute piece of gothic Southern pulp by Pulitzer winner Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) that comes straight from California’s prestigious Geffen Playhouse with a starry cast, leaves one wondering what attracted Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, Glenne Headly and Tony-winning director Robert Falls to this bleak, creepy, ultimately inconsequential work. In other words, it’s a trashy play about white trash.
Set in 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, which happens to be Henley’s hometown, Harris plays Bill Perch, a seemingly upright, politically liberal yet absolutely dysfunctional dentist currently holed up in the sleazy Jacksonian Motel, which is evoked in all its dinginess in Walt Spangler’s set design. Bill receives occasional visits from his high-strung wife Susan (Amy Matigan) and socially awkward teenage daughter Rosy (Juliet Brett).
Bill also spends a good deal of time in the motel’s barroom, which is usually occupied by ominous bartender Fred (Pullman) and self-absorbed, dim-witted maid Eva (Headly), who is determined to snag the dentist for herself and will often voice her approval of the Ku Klux Klan.
While Henley exposes the unapologetic racism and evil and violent qualities in several characters, she just leaves it all hanging awkwardly next to numerous disturbing visuals, including but not limited to the bartender attempting to swallow a knife or expose himself and the dentist getting high on his gas and then harming multiple women. Perhaps Henley intended for the play to be interpreted mainly as a black comedy. If so, the humor fails to organically emerge.
Instead, The Jacksonian ends up as a raw, muddled melodrama that vaguely recalls the works of Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Henley also tries to infuse it with suspense over a local murder mystery that implicates the bartender and the maid as culprits. Furthermore, the daughter will also stop the action to address the audience directly, as if in a Greek tragedy or a memory play, and the scenes are presented in a fragmented, unfocused manner.
In light of the play’s tone, it was inevitable that the performances would come off as ridiculous and clichéd in spite of the fine cast. Harris at least delivers a convincing turn as someone on the verge of descending into the depths of his subconscious. Meanwhile, Pullman and Headly deserve some credit for taking on such ghastly characters and personifying them with vivid detail and in a deadpan style.