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Flecks of gold

The Jacksonian at Ion Theatre

Kristin Woodburn and Dónal Pugh
Kristin Woodburn and Dónal Pugh

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.”

The Jacksonian

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.

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Kristin Woodburn and Dónal Pugh
Kristin Woodburn and Dónal Pugh

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.”

The Jacksonian

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.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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