You know how you felt about that kid you grew up with? You know the one. He was the son of ridiculously successful parents and given every opportunity to enjoy and succeed in his blessed life. But rather than take full advantage of what he was given and the head start he had on his future and fortune, he got really lazy, smoked a lot of pot and blamed everyone in his life but himself for his unhappiness. Yeah. The way you feel about that guy is how I feel about this production.
Beth Henley, THE JACKSONIAN’s author, was born in Jackson, Mississippi, where this play takes place. She went to Southern Methodist University. She is steeped in Sweet Tea laced with Tupelo Honey. Beth Henley has a love affair with language that is unique to the Southern United States and borders on Shakespearian in its passion. The lines she gives her characters are nuggets of gold. Her story-telling is wrought with intrigue and wrapped in clever humor brought about by lovely turns of phrase that warm the listener and give attention-holding insight into the character who is speaking.
To my utter dismay this production killed the gift that Beth Henley gave it. (There was a terrible chemical odor in the theatre to magnify all other offenses.) God bless this cast, some of whom have proven themselves to be among our nation’s greatest actors, sadly for this production, in other pieces of work.
The play opens with the character of Rosy Perch (Juliet Brett) front and center. Something horrible is on her face. It takes a moment to realize that make-up artist, Joe Dulude II, has overdone an acne effect on Brett’s complexion that warrants a much bigger house and much brighter lights. The effect is very distracting and tears a big hole in one’s willing suspension of disbelief. Burning the edges of that hole is the halting through clenched teeth delivery of young Miss Perch’s lines. These words are those of a frightened and confused child. They are written to tug at your heart and cause you to wonder what on earth happened to this innocent creature to cause her so much distress. Instead, in this production, I found myself hoping that we don’t see much of this character or that, perhaps, this is just a presentation style given to the narration part of this play. Yet, as the play goes on, when Rosy Perch is narrating to her audience as is called for several times in the script, it’s clearly not a style choice and the audience, I think, is supposed to feel something. But I can’t tell if the audience is a friend or foe. I wanted to care so much about this kid, but I couldn’t.
The exposition scene between Eva White (Glenne Headly) and Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) is delivered with all the finesse of a high school play practice. Again, beautiful writing is robbed of all tenderness, connectedness and desire. These characters have a lot going on and, for the show to work, we really need to care about them and their goals to some capacity. But for some reason, the actors were not permitted to emote for any of what was so readily available in the text. Pullman is clearly still working on a brilliant physicality for the Fred Weber character as it never really comes together for him, so the idea is there, but all the tension of trying too hard is there, too. Headly is handed a multi-layered, beyond stereotype, willfully ignorant, blonde, southern woman to play and rather than tearing into this delicious character like a sleek golden ermine, she produces a vapid recitation of what is otherwise brilliant writing.
Susan Perch (Amy Madigan) is a complicated Southern woman feeling trapped by her marriage and at the mercy of 1960’s medical establishment’s understanding of female biology. Her speeches are loaded with beautiful insanity that could have put the audience in puddles. But we are left, instead, wondering if Madigan understands everything she needs to understand about her character. Was she rushed to learn this part? Was this play put together in a couple of days? According to other press, this is not the case. The distraught Mrs. Perch shouts out something about not being able to commit suicide and it seems to come from absolutely nowhere. Not the nowhere of insanity, which would make for drama, but really nowhere.
Bill Perch (Ed Harris) is a character who rebels against a morally corrupt upbringing and finds himself without the spine to be a true hero. Harris hits the mark a few times and begins to bring about some believability to what we see upon the stage, but he fails to hold steady there at that mark no matter how much we wish he would. This character took a wrong turn somewhere in his life and is wrought with guilt and shame. No one taught him how to love anybody, the script clearly tells us, but there is no reason for the actor to give us no indication of how the character really feels about his wife and daughter. To the contrary, the words are there but served like meat without salt. Harris is slightly better at letting us know how the character feels about himself.
The scene of heavy chemical influence between Bill Perch and Eva White (Harris and Headly, respectively) does come together well in many places. The actors allow themselves to take more risks to their limit probably using intoxication as an assigned author for emotional freedom. We totally believe that these characters are doing the wrong thing at the wrong time are oblivious and about to get into a whole mess of trouble. Tension is built with the skill of seasoned players and it feels really good, but sadly, this is very near the end of the play.
The scene between Fred Weber and Rosy Perch (Pullman and Brett, respectively) also nearly makes it so very close to good. But there is no steady grip on the potential heat or connection on the stage. The lines give it so deftly, but yet we wonder why these characters are suddenly in such an intimate dance with one another. The dance is frequently all left feet when it could have been absolutely breathtaking packing an emotional wallop.
Henley is not Pinter. She does not write somewhere above deep subtext of characters who cannot connect with one another. Henley writes beautiful and disturbing emotional journeys for characters looking for hope in a cruel world, but who connect with one another along the way despite all obstacles against them. Director, Robert Falls, either didn’t have enough time to develop his experiment with this script and his more than capable actors or he simply didn’t care.
The set design by Walt Spangler was absolutely perfect. He gives us a completely gratifying cheap 1960’s downtown Jackson hotel bar and hotel room. Sound design by Richard Woodbury is flawless. I was especially impressed with the running water sounds. However, the same artist composed the music, which I found to be a bit tin-ie. Daniel Ionazzi’s lights were well executed, casting a sort of hazy film over everything, which suited the story very well.
Maybe the show will get better as it runs. It has loads of potential. Bless its heart.
By Beth Henley; directed by Robert Falls; sets by Walt Spangler; costumes by Ana Kuzmanic; lighting by Daniel Ionazzi; music and sound by Richard Woodbury; assistant director, Young Ji; fight coordinator, Ned Mochel; production supervisor, PRF Productions; production stage manager, Valerie A. Wright; general manager, DR Theatrical Management; associate artistic director, Ian Morgan. Presented by the New Group, Scott Elliott, artistic director; Geoff Rich, executive director. At the Acorn Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Dec. 22. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
WITH: Ed Harris (Bill Perch), Glenne Headly (Eva White), Amy Madigan (Susan Perch), Bill Pullman (Fred Weber) and Juliet Brett (Rosy Perch).