“Doesn’t matter wutcha call ’em,” Eva sizzes amid the news of a cashier’s murder, allegedly perped by a black male; “ain’t nuthin’ gonna make ’em white.” The Mississippi of 1964 was up to its racist ass in such buzz, girding itself for impalement on the Civil Rights Act that would spell a legal end to Southern-style bigotry.
Similar legislation had been passed in 1866 and 1875, but idiots like Eva reflected a statewide mood that this time, the law was here to stay.
Playwright Beth Henley, in fact, was born in Jackson, Miss., setting for The Jacksonian, current ion theatre company entry. Like Annie Baker, Henley writes here from a nativist perspective, yielding a memory play partly inspired by the 1996 killing of her nephew — accordingly, the script aspires to the otherworldly, quasi-creepy tinge to the country’s racist phenomenon.
Bottom line is, this show doesn’t work. While the acting quality varies, the foundations for the characters’ attitudes are either tentative or wholly ingratiating, leading to one of the less-inspired ion presentations in a while.
Successful Jackson dentist Bill Perch, on the other hand, is the opposite. When his estranged wife Susan kicks him out of their posh Jackson house, he’s inspired to an anesthetic-fueled descent at the Jacksonian Motel, where his oddball high school daughter Rosy brings him a tiny Christmas tree and tries to recall the particulars of an “accident.” From there, Susan, Eva and white bartender Fred (who may be involved in the killing) converge on Bill’s despair; all five are metaphors for a Southern way of life that’s ignominiously drawing to a close.
Henley has said she drew from five decades’ distance between ’60s racism and the 2014 play, figuring that history would provide the benefit of hindsight. She’s right, and she’s certainly drawn Eva accordingly — but there’s soooo much more color behind the story, one that should have been the classic stuff of a violent eleventh-hour final breath before the dawn of a new era.
Susan blames Bill, rather than some theoretical black doctor, for her hysterectomy? Eva dances the dirty with Bill without a single racist reference to the murder when the killing is almost her raison d’etre before this? Rosy studies French in Fred’s bar, her schoolwork suspiciously bereft of history lessons from a bigot’s point of view? Fred without a single betrayal of his many skeletons until Rosy or Eva bring them up? There’s a soap opera going on here, and it centers on just about every topic except the one at hand.
That said, Dónal Pugh’s Bill is actually kind of amusing, chiefly because the character is an older man. Pugh misses the accent, but he’s not altogether bad at playing a gangly unaccustomedness to his laughing gas. Kristin Woodburn’s Eva, Jake Rosko’s Fred and Beverly Baker’s Susan are all right, but their roles lack vital subtext. I suspect Nicole Sollazzo took a lot of coaching on the subtleties surrounding her double duty as Rosy the character and Rosy the narrator, and directors Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza acquitted themselves.
Raygoza manages to eke out every square inch of stage space for his period-specific set, while Mary Summerday’s costumes and Karen Filijan’s lights exude a certain efficiency. Raygoza’s sound-design savvy is evident in his moody music beds.
Remember Emmett Till, the happy-go-lucky black kid who lost an eye as he was brutally beaten to death in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman? The take-away here is that that murder took place in Mississippi — and Till’s mom demanded that her boy be buried in an open casket so the public could experience racist behavior in all its ghastly repercussions (this after the killers admitted they did it following their acquittal by an all-white, all-male jury in 67 minutes). What an absolutely magnificent anecdote for a jerk like Eva to contemplate as her signature racism consumes her city.
As it is, Henley teases us with glimpses into her characters’ lives minus the requisite glut of racial overtones. Indeed, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it — that’s why we oughtn’t look to this show for our lessons.
This review is based on the media opening of March 5. The Jacksonian runs through March 26 at BLK BOX @ 6th&Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest. $10-$32. (619) 600-5020, iontheatre.com.