Jan 11, 2012
photo by Walter McBride
One of the first reviews I wrote for Back Stage West back in 1993 was a slam of Control Freaks, a lurid and seriously flawed attempt by the playwright Beth Henley to reach way outside her usual metier and do something attention-gettingly radical (my colleague Tom Jacobs liked it better than I did). In fact, Henley had for some time been trying to punch her way outside the box to which she'd been consigned by her early successes, Crimes of the Heart (essentially her first full-length play, which nabbed her a Pulitzer before the age of 30), and The Miss Firecracker Contest—to be specific, the quaint-and-dainty-Southern-lady box, a profoundly condescending stereotype that sells her best work short, but one she's been unable to shake, not least because neither her attempts to run from it nor her post-Crimes Southern plays have been up to her best work (though I think Abundance and The Lucky Spot deserve another shot, and I would pay serious money to see David Cromer direct any of her work, particularly Crimes).
All of which made me very interested in The Jacksonian, her newest play, which bows at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. next month. Remarkably, it marks her first premiere at a major resident theater in the town she's lived in for 30 years now; it's also the first play set in her own hometown of Jackson, Miss., and set during a particularly ugly and volatile time there (1964). I'm a terrible judge of plays on the page, so I can't say whether this extremely disturbing, intermittently funny new work is her best since Crimes of the Heart or not. But with its verbal and physical violence, and its undercurrent of fatalism, it's certainly a departure from the mostly-unfair stereotype of the quirky-sweet Beth Henley. As director Robert Falls puts it in my new New York Times feature on the play, if nothing else The Jacksonian returns to Henley's Southern territory, but with a new fearlessness he credits to her howling-in-the-wilderness period.
Alas, I won't be able to see the play, but with any luck—and the insurance not only of Falls' participation but a cast that includes Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, and Glenne Headly—this won't be the end of the road for The Jacksonian, or for Henley's lopsided career.
Posted by Rob Weinert-Kendt at 2:20 PM