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'The Jacksonian': An All-Star Cast In Beth Henley's Macabre New Play

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If you like Southern Gothic with a large helping of murder and mayhem, shrouded in mystery, and expertly acted by an all-star cast of four stage veterans and one newcomer, you won't want to miss Beth Henley's new play The Jacksonian.

Just watching the stellar cast of Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Glenne Headly, Bill Pullman and young Juliet Brett is alone worth a trip to the New Group's production of Henley's macabre tale. Henley, a Pulitzer winner in 1981 for Crimes of the Heart, has returned to her hometown of Jackson, Miss., for her latest drama, set in the bar, one room, and around the ice machine of the hotel of the title. The time is 1964 amid the racial disturbances that were sweeping the South.

It is clear from the outset that blood will be spilled at some point in the evening. A young girl, wrapped in a blanket, enters at center stage and warns that someone is about to be murdered. A man in a blood-stained shirt suddenly lurches out of a hallway at stage left, throws open the door to the ice machine, scoops up a bucket of ice, and races off.

The Jacksonian then moves to the hotel bar where Eva White, a waitress, is trying to coerce Fred Weber, the barman, to honor his promise to marry her. It is nearly Christmas, and the bar is decorated for the holiday, complete with a crèche. Weber is explaining why he can't marry her, and suggests she try instead to get her hooks into Bill Perch, a dentist who has been in residence at the hotel since his wife Susan kicked him out of their house and who may be heading for divorce.

Perch is going through a bad time. His dental practice - he is a gum specialist with a penchant for the various forms of anesthesia - is clearly not going well. He would like to return home so that he and his wife and daughter Rosy could be a family again. But, as he explains it, his wife is neurotic and refuses to seek help.

It would be unfair to Henley's considerable story-telling talents to disclose more of what transpires over the next 90 minutes. Suffice it to say, little is what it seems on the surface. "Things happen for a reason," Rosy says in one of her asides. "But there are no reasons."

The action moves backward and forward in time over the seven months from May to December. A subplot develops around a murder that took place earlier at a nearby gas station for which an elderly black man has been wrongfully accused. Under Robert Falls' astute direction, the details of Henley's play are eked out as suspicion grows and questions multiply.

Harris and Madigan, a real-life husband and wife team who are both veterans of the dark dramas of Sam Shepard, are splendid as the quarreling Perches, each slowly revealing the true nature of their characters so that the final scenes come as a real shock.

Pullman, as adept in thrillers as he is in the comedies for which he is perhaps best known, is chilling as Fred the bartender. Sporting Elvis sideburns and mumbling through clenched jaw, he is a walking embodiment of one's worst nightmare.

It is a joy to see the brilliant Headly back on a New York stage after an absence of some 20 years, when she appeared in the original Balm in Gilead. As Eva, she is the personification of a low-class Southern gold-digger, willing to do anything to get a ring on her finger.

In an impressive Off-Broadway debut, Juliet Brett delivers a touching performance as Rosy, the Perches' daughter caught in the middle of their marital dispute, though it is a stretch at times to believe a 16-year-old could be so naïve, even in 1964.