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Review: THE JACKSONIAN Offers Southern Fried Purgatory

Halloween has come and gone but the creepiness lingers at Theatre Row, where The New Group's transfer of L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse's premiere of Beth Henley's The Jacksonian is thick with Southern Gothic atmosphere and dark humor.

With scenes moving back and forth throughout a ten month period of 1964, the title refers to a Mississippi motel, rendered appropriately as dignified-on-a-budget by set designer Walt Spangler. The long stage is mostly divided between the wood-paneled bar/restaurant (with a terribly dusty mirror) and a guest room, with a corner reserved for the outdoor ice machine where buckets are occasionally dipped with dramatic crashes.

Bill Pullman seems pulled out of a Charles Addams cartoon as bartender Fred. Stiff-faced, slick-haired and mutton-chopped, his oddball appearance and speech rhythm gets the audience chuckling from the start.

Fred has commitment issues with Eva (perky/sexy Glenne Headly), the gabby maid/waitress who occasionally spews out racist remarks. He says he's retracting his promise to marry her because he's terminally ill, but the real reason may be that "she smells like broken-up crayons in a dirty room."

Long-stay guest Bill (Ed Harris), a dentist with marital problems, seems like a reasonably normal fellow until we start learning more about his practice, his marriage and his addiction. One of the strengths of Henley's text is that she takes her sweet time feeding the audience bits of information that reveal the complete picture.

Harris' real-life spouse, Amy Madigan, plays Bill's paranoid and disillusioned wife, Susan, but the most darkly wounded soul of the piece is their sullen teenage daughter, Rosy (excellent, empathetic work by Juliet Brett), the object of Fred's eerie attention who just wants something resembling a happy family life.

Henley's dialogue is frequently amusing because the characters express her off-beat phrasing with the utmost seriousness. Recalling their first sexual encounter, Susan says to Bill, "I let you feel under my skirt. You're a dentist. Your hands are always clean. Your fingers are agile. They understand how to manipulate with precision in small cavities."

Murder, robbery, infidelity and other hi-jinks work their way into the picture, and director Robert Falls' production feels appropriately moody and creepy.

Henley describes the locale in her script as "a sort of purgatory." As an evening of theatre, The Jacksonian might be described the same way. It pulls you in with its attention-grabbing characters and atmosphere but then leaves you wondering if it's ever going to take you anywhere.

Photos by Monique Carboni: Top: Ed Harris and Glenne Headly; Bottom: Juliet Brett and Bull Pullman.

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