When Mississippi put its only gas chamber at Parchman Penitentiary, says Fred in Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian, “there was a good deal of opposition from the people of Sunflower County. They did not want all the evil blood in the state spilled on their land alone.”
A little later, Susan tells Fred. “I hate living here. There’s something in the humidity that makes me perspire drops of blood.”
At this point in Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian they might just be talking the Southern Gothic talk. But from here on in they walk a ghoulish walk. The play takes place at the Jacksonian, a motel on the outskirts of Henley’s hometown, Jackson, Mississippi, from March to December, 1964. Outside, the KKK’s on a rampage. Inside, the motel feels like a haven from mayhem, at first. Even when 16-year-old Rosy Perch warns us that a “time of murder” is at hand, the denizens seem like nice enough folks — with a few “normal” problems — until they flash their colors.
Or, as Rosy says, “all the colors you didn’t want to use.”
Bill Perch says he’s in a “lull.” An upstanding dentist, he’s staying at the motel because he left his wife, Susan (“you have failed in every way a man can fail”). Now self-medicating with the sedatives of his profession, he will do violence to Phil Boone’s teeth and lose his license. Susan either does or doesn’t want a divorce — rumors create realities in small-town Jackson – or she doesn’t, then does.
Fred, the bartender, tells house maid Eva White he can’t marry her because he will die soon. To which Eva, in a pure, Beth Henley line, replies: “At least you’re going somewhere!”
Lies run thicker than the Spanish moss dripping from mosaic lamps on Claudio Raygoza’s set.
The Jacksonian is a memory play. Rosy recalls the events leading up to a murder — but out of order, as if cursed to re- and re-remember them, going back and coming forward. Her name’s a one-word oxymoron: her life is anything but.
Beth Henley has a distinctive voice. She laces ground-down grim dialogue with hilarious flecks of gold. As when Rosy fiddles with a manger scene and Eva yells: “Don’t play with his swaddling. That’s Christ Baby Jesus, not a doll!”
Instead of setting jokes free, and Henley’s prose in general, Ion Theatre delivers a humorless, unsubtle staging. It’s hard to tell if it’s the uneven acting — too often overly thick accents erase key words — or the direction. Either way, the deliveries abound in missed opportunities.
Dónal Pugh, in a rare local appearance, does solid work as Bill. A Polonius of clichéd advice, he’s kind to Rosy and mean as a snake when agitated.
Beverly Baker (Susan), Jake Rosko (Fred), and Kristin Woodburn (Eva) have much to explore in their roles. Most readings stick to one level.
It’s hard to believe that Nicole Sollazzo is a junior at Coronado School of the Arts. From the start, she gets to Rosy’s hurt and perplexity and an aching inability, like Cassandra knowing the fate of Troy, to halt the inevitable.
Playing through March 26.