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Once again proving that the Audrey Skirball Kenis space is the jewel of the Geffen where exciting theater can happen, this premiere production demonstrates that Beth Henley, Pulitzer Prize winner for Crimes of the Heart, can take her comedic talent into new and valuable directions.
Set in the titular hotel on the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi, from March to December 1964, the highly effective set divides between the bar and the room where dentist Dr. Bill Perch (Ed Harris) has been exiled during what he hopes to be a trial separation from his wife Susan (Amy Madigan). Daughter Rosy (Bess Rous) shuttles between them as a candidly designation “go between”. Everyone hangs at the bar, where sinister bartender Fred (Bill Pullman) and desperate housemaid Eva (Glenne Headly) share their own guilty secrets.
Bill is personable and professional, ostensibly sincere but clearly troubled. For the most of the play we perceive Susan through his viewpoint, although the action is ostensibly narrated by Rosy. While avoiding any acknowledgement that this is a “memory play,” it nevertheless adopts the trappings of one when it suits the exposition, which is pointedly scrambled to highlight its primary theme: whether character is destiny, or is fate a matter of the smallest chances at redemption fumbled? Against a subtly invoked background of racist violence, these personal challenges are intimately woven into the political context.
Henley takes her time building up the characters and situations, able to transcend the inevitable ghost of Tennessee Williams by her absolute security with her own voice. Everyone is drawn and played larger than life, boldly rather than merely broad, and when resorting to caricature for effect, she does not descend to Southern clichés of the period but rather exaggerations in tune with her own vision. Her ear is so true that the dialogue can remain tonally accurate while heightened into a stylization distinctly her own.
The action proceeds rather ruthlessly from apparent black comedy into even darker recesses of the disintegration of souls. This can flirt dangerously with a loss of credibility, which is where the savvy of Robert Falls’ direction and the commitment of the players makes such a difference to the production’s success. Drug-induced excesses are particularly difficult to make real on stage, live and in actual continuity of time and space, yet Harris manages to carry it off more convincingly than Johnny Depp on screen, who has had at it more often.
Headly etches a particularly memorable portrait of a familiar type fleshed out with originality and dimensionality, and Pullman conveys an enormous amount of texture and humanity while never ostensibly tipping his hand. Rous, festooned with cartoon acne, has daringly been cast as a teenager, a dissonance that injects some artifice into the company that helps orchestrate Henley’s sleight-of-hand between realistic power and theatrical gestures.
Most effective of all is a brilliantly conceived final coda at the hotel ice machine, the last of many flashbacks within the storytelling, where Henley suggests that hope is possible, genuine, and also unlikely.
Venue: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse (runs through March 25)
Cast: Ed Harris, Glenne Headly, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, Bess Rous
Director: Robert Falls
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Music & sound Designer: Richard Woodbury
Costume designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse
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