Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE JACKSONIAN (The Acorn Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on November 7, 2013

in Theater-New York


The narrative of Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian orbits a murder in 1964 Jackson, Mississippi. Susan Perch (Amy Madigan) kicks her husband Bill (Ed Harris), a respected dentist, out of their house. He checks into the Jacksonian, a seedy motel which employs a creepy bartender, Fred (Bill Pullman), and a doltish avaricious waitress named Eva (Glenne Headly). Our guide throughout the show is Bill and Susan’s teenage daughter Rosy, who regularly visits her father, and has the power of second sight, which counterbalances her retarded social and scholastic skills (as Rosy, Juliet Brett is so visceral it’s disturbing).

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema Off-Broadway review of Beth Henley's 'The Jacksonian" at the Acorn.

It would be misguided to try and pigeonhole The Jacksonian by attempting to encapsulate what it is really about; the play lends itself to various and sometimes conflicting interpretations – a testament to the depth and virtuosity of Ms. Henley’s writing. One way to look at it is as a tale of a basically benevolent, civilized man trying to remain so in a world full of vanity, insanity, and evil. Or perhaps it’s about individuals who have very definite ideas about who they are and why they do what they do, but who are in fact moved by powerful forces which they cannot understand nor perceive nor resist.

Juliet Brett and Bill Pullman in The Jacksonian.

Or maybe Ms. Henley’s play is about people who are so in love both with their ideas of themselves and with how they believe their lives should be that they are blind to reality, both internal and external. Or maybe it’s about how people grow to believe their own lies. There’s much to think about in Ms. Henley’s formidable creation, which is not without its comic moments, both dark and light, but which is ultimately a tragic, noir-ish, Southern Gothic tale of desperate vanity and violence.

Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in The Jacksonian.

This is not to say that the show is flawless. Ms. Henley sets up Time as a thematic element. “We need to leave in time. The time is. What time is,” says Rosy enigmatically at the beginning of the show. Later, Bill makes the observation: “Things can only happen in time. Without time where are we?” Indeed the script goes back and forth to and from the night of the murder, and time, in the sense of the way in which the story is told, is a fluid concept. But other than as it relates to the play’s structure, time doesn’t play much of a role in the philosophical or metaphysical sense – which I found a little disappointing considering how much emphasis is put on introducing Time as a concept.

Ed Harris and Glenne Headly in The Jacksonian.

Robert Falls’ straightforward direction plays well on Walt Spangler’s evocative set which, although realistic, with Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting design, has the surreal, ominous quality of something from David Lynch. Still, one wonders if making everything not quite so literal might have added a certain mystical quality to the production, a quality Ms. Henley appears to be trying to create in her script. One way Mr. Falls chooses to differentiate the present from flashback is by having a little Christmas tree and manger rise up into the scene when it is Christmas time, and lower underneath the stage when we are looking at past events. After two such appearances, with the little tree and its red-ball decorations jiggling as it is raised and lowered, it begins to look silly. No doubt Mr. Falls chooses this device to preserve the mystery in the murder mystery, as well as to keep the audience from getting lost in the sequence of events. But it’s questionable how necessary any of that is for this play.

Ed Harris and Bill Pullman in The Jacksonian.

There are also sections that feel a little slow, where tension slacks and jeopardy wanes. We don’t experience enough strong emotions for the characters involved in these scenes to get us through the slow times. I’m sure making these personages the way they are is an intentional artistic choice made in order to tell this particular story. The difficulty this presents though is that except for Rosy and perhaps her father, none of the characters in The Jacksonian are likeable enough for us to be absorbed by their fate during these uneventful periods.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in The Jacksonian

Yet a stellar cast with performances to match, solid direction, and a script rich with significant themes and ideas make The Jacksonian a satisfying experience that resonates long after the show is over.

Bill Pullman and Glenne Headly in The Jacksonian.

photos by Monique Carboni

The Jacksonian
The New Group
a Geffen Playhouse Production at The Acorn Theater
scheduled to end on December 22, 2013
for tickets, call 212 239-6200 or visit

Amy Madigan and Ed Harris in The Jacksonian.

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