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Ed Harris delights in ‘The Jacksonian’

Maya Phillips | 12/19/2013, 12:30 p.m.

Tis the season for racism, injustice, lies, domestic abuse, chloroform and murder. After all, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a nice, long stay at the Jacksonian Motel. In Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” now playing at the New Group, the holidays aren’t quite as happy as they should be. 

In this star-studded show, directed by Tony Award-winner Robert Falls, award-winning actor Ed Harris stars as Bill Perch, an acclaimed dentist who lives in Jackson, Miss., in 1964. After a domestic altercation, Perch is kicked out of his house by his wife, Susan (Amy Madigan), and moves into the sleazy Jacksonian Motel. While there, he encounters Eva White (Glenne Headly), a scheming, gold-digging maid, and the seedy bartender, Fred Weber (film star Bill Pullman). As a murder investigation looms in the background, Bill continues living at the Jacksonian, which ultimately serves as the setting for his downfall. 

This is an odd play, full of poeticism, pain, discomfort and topics that unnerve. Henley presents Bill as a likable protagonist, a seemingly level-headed, intelligent and upright character who takes pride in his occupation—and it is for these reasons that his downfall is simultaneously surprising and inevitable. There can never be any doubts about Harris’ acting skills, and he certainly shows them off in this part, which has him brilliantly portray a character who is torn apart before our eyes. Opposite him is Madigan as Bill’s wife, Susan, who is a bit psychologically unsettled and resentful of Bill for his transgressions, both real and imagined. Madigan also delivers a fine performance as Susan, swinging from emotional extremes and playing her own vital part in Bill’s destruction. 

Pullman, sporting epic sideburns and ominous tattoos, mumbles and grumbles as the Jacksonian Motel’s bartender who is entangled in his own dark web of lies and crime. As Eva, Headly unfortunately gives a one-note performance but still has her moments of humor. 

At the center of the action, serving as both the narrator and prophet of this story, is Bill’s teenage daughter, Rosy Perch, wonderfully played by Juliet Brett. Rosy, a glum, acne-ridden teenager with an odd disposition, appears throughout the play to comment on the action with the understanding of a character who has grown by the tragic events that have already transpired. 

What makes Henley’s play so odd—and yes, fascinating—is the way she shocks with her sharp turns of tone, verbiage and plot. The play shifts back and forth between stone-faced drama and black humor. The dialogue shifts dramatically from dense, gothic poeticism—which at times is perfectly called for and at others is drastically overwrought—to the everyday speech of regular residents of Jackson, Miss. The plot, which could have just as easily seated itself in the domestic conflict of the Perch family, expands to incorporate other elements so it becomes just as much of a murder mystery as it is a domestic drama. 

Henley certainly has fun toying with elements that make her audience members squirm in discomfort: the omnipresent 1964 racism that’s in the background, as exemplified by the unapologetic racism of Eva; the perverse attraction of Fred; and the inchoate violence of Bill. Still, the play’s boldness and starkness is what draws the audience in.  

The New Group sets the perfect stage for these talented actors to deliver mesmerizing performances that teem with suspense and madness. All you weary travelers, make sure you reserve a room at the Jacksonian Motel, because who knows what you’ll encounter.

“The Jacksonian” is now playing through Dec. 22 at the New Group, 410 W. 42nd St. For information or tickets, visit www.thenewgroup.com or www.telecharge.com.