THEATER REVIEW: “The Jacksonian”

Christmas approaches with little cheer but plenty of agita for the strange quintet encountered in “The Jacksonian,” Beth Henley’s southern gothic play set at a seedy motel in Jackson, Miss., where five damaged or broken people meet, work or live out their unsatisfying individual existences.

“The Jacksonian” plays through March 26 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX theater in Hillcrest. Ion’s co-founders, Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, co-direct.

Henley made her reputation almost four decades ago with the lovable southern eccentrics in “Crimes of the Heart” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”

Here, she goes to a much darker place – the Jackson of her childhood – and sets the play in 1964, the year of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Murder figures in this play as well.

Short-tempered, wife-battering dentist Bill Perch (Dónal Pugh) is again in residence at the motel, because wife Susan (Beverly Baker) has kicked him out again. This is only “a temporary measure,” according to the wishful thinking of teenage daughter Rosy (Nicole Sollazzo), who just wants some semblance of a normal family life.

But “normal” does not describe Bill, Susan, Rosy or anyone else in this quintet of characters. Rosy, for example, wants what she’s not likely to get: a wicker wheelchair for Christmas, “so I wouldn’t have to walk” and, of course, that intact family.

Rosy’s father Bill is another case. He presents as a nice professional man, but his hot temper has led to an overzealous exercise of dentistry and misuse of the drugs of the trade.

Desperate housewife Susan has her own problems. Bill calls her “crazy” and says she does things like throwing hot coffee and sitting in a bathtub all day without water. She may just be desperate enough to file for divorce.

Or take bartender Fred Weber (Jake Rosko), a horny dog, liar and worse, trying to figure out how to get rid of slightly dim (and racist) motel waitress/maid Eva (Kristin Woodburn), who fancies Fred her fiancé and can’t wait to get that ring on her finger for good.

Fred has given her a ring temporarily, to shut her up (I’ll leave you to discover its provenance), but he wants it back, and to get rid of her concocts a wild story about a “muscular constriction” in his heart which he claims will kill him soon. “Set your sights on the living,” he advises.

Eva’s single-minded devotion to acquiring that wedding band is enough to drive both Fred and us to desperate measures. Fred has done something horrendous, but Eva is willing to be his alibi in exchange for that wedding band.

These are sad specimens of humanity, rather like solitary spiders bottled up together, some clawing to get out, others longing to connect. There’s more than a whiff of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor here, and though these characters are not as interesting as those, at least Henley serves them up with a goodly amount of black humor, and this cast makes the most of it with comments like “She smells like broken-up crayons in a dirty room.”

These are difficult characters to warm up to, but my favorite actor is Rosko, whose Fred says more with a look or a gesture than pages of dialogue could reveal.

Baker gives us a convincing Susan whose dreams of a good marriage are being dashed by Pugh’s Bill, an increasingly scary husband with anger issues.

Sollazzo’s Rosy, the unintended victim of the unsettling shenanigans of her parents, is heartbreaking as she tries to hold onto a dream of normalcy.

But it’s Woodburn’s scheming Eva, described by Henley as the “bad angel,” who sets in motion the tragic aspects of the piece.

This is Henley as we’ve never seen her. “The Jacksonian” makes for uncomfortable watching. It will be interesting to see where Henley takes her career from here.

The Details

“The Jacksonian” plays through March 26, 2016 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest.

Wednesday at 7 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or www.iontheatre.com