Beth Henley's play has the kind of dark humor you'd find in a Flannery O'Connor novel.
The Jacksonian, a 2013 play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Beth Henley, manages to cram divorce, racism, treachery and murder into its under-90-minute running time. It’s populated with characters whose hatred, cruelty, and ignorance seem to know no bounds. Mild-mannered dentist Bill Perch has been kicked out of the house by his wife, and now he’s staying at the titular hotel, which is awash with some truly lurid, dark characters.
The performance, presented by Threshold Repertory Theater starting next Sat. April 22, is also chock full of dark comedy, packed with the kind of pitch-black humor that fans of Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor will recognize immediately. Set in Mississippi in 1964, the play is a non-linear work that centers around the night of a brutal murder at The Jacksonian, and Henley incorporates some seriously twisted tales from her Jackson, Miss. upbringing.
Take the character of Eva, a waitress who works in the hotel bar/restaurant. She’s based on a real person from Henley’s childhood whose life and death were a mix of horror and humor.
“Eva, she’s terribly racist and not a good person,” says The Jacksonian’s director, Robin Burke. “She’s loosely based on Henley’s sister’s fifth grade teacher, who was shot and killed by the police because she was riding with her boyfriend to place a bomb at a Jewish home. The story that came out was that she was shot dead wearing hot pants.”
Eva is just one part of a perverse, wildly entertaining story that Burke has been trying to get produced for more than three years.
“I found this play in November of 2013, when I read about it in the New York Times," Burke says. “I’ve always been a fan of Beth Henley’s work, but this particular play just really struck me as something incredible. It was the first time she’d written about her hometown; there’s a lot of her early life included in the play. And I have the same memories. I grew up in the South in the '60s as well, and it really spoke to me. So I started shopping the play to different producers and nobody would produce it except for Jay Danner, who’s the artistic director at Threshold, and he liked it as much as I did.”
Well, maybe not quite as much as Burke did. Danner had some other things on his mind when he said yes to The Jacksonian.
“Robin brought it to me about the time I took over the theater,” Danner says, “and we were looking for shows because I was on a time crunch. I was interested in doing something that was provocative my first time out, and I felt that it fit in with what I wanted to do. It’s by Beth Henley (whose previous plays include the acclaimed Crimes Of The Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest) so I knew the name would draw people in. And I like the way the play is structured: It’s a one-act, it moves quickly, and I like shows that don’t give audiences a chance to catch their breath.”
All that aside, Danner was definitely into the story once he read the play. “I’d never read anything like it,” he says. “I often don’t love non-linear storytelling because it can be used in a pretentious way, but this isn’t like that at all. It’s very easy to follow, even though it moves and shifts in time. There are flashback scenes that show you the backstory and how all the characters came to be together on the night of the murder.”
Since there are only three settings in the play, Bill’s hotel room, the hotel bar, and an ice machine located outside of the hotel, it was also relatively easy work for Burke and Threshold to stage. “With just the three locations, I thought a black–box setting for the play was appropriate.”
So how do the actors walk the lines between suspense, dark-as-night subject matter, and gallows humor, especially since they don’t have fancy sets to fall back on? Burke says it’s all in the performances.
“It’s extremely difficult,” he says. “I’m an actor myself, so I’m an actor-based director. The play is what it is. Every incarnation becomes its own thing. It works as long as you have committed actors that love their characters, which they do, and as long as you carry the spirit of the play, which is that dark Southern humor, mixed with the personal and the political."
For Threshold’s performance, Don Brandenburg will play Bill Perch, Liz Duren plays Don’s estranged wife Susan, Katte Noel will play their daughter Rosie, Teralyn Tanner will play the aforementioned Eva White, and Darryl LaPlante plays Fred the bartender.
And despite their rather desolate and angry lives, Burke says they all have one glorious, delusional idea in mind. “The characters all believe that everything’s going to be just fine,” he says, “because they have to.”