In the best of all worlds Beth Henley’s new play “The Jacksonian” at B Street Theatre would be a stifling Southern gothic murder mystery. However, that’s a high-wire act of atmosphere, tone and drama the just-opened production can’t maintain. When the production does find its balance, though, it’s an intriguing, occasionally mesmerizing deviation in form from the popular theater company’s successful comedies.
Set in 1964 Jackson, Miss., the play jumps back and forth in time over a tumultuous seven-month period. All the action takes place in the less-than-classy motel where dentist Bill Perch, who is slowly failing at life, has moved after a domestic dispute with his wife. Kurt Johnson, as usual, delivers a committed compelling performance as Perch, who may or may not be abusive, drug-addicted, and losing his business.
His fluttering wife, Susan, comes to the play by way of any number of Tennessee Williams’ faded off-kilter southern belles. Jamie Jones gives a gloriously dreamy seductive performance as Susan, who recognizes something’s off with her husband though she can’t see it in herself. Just how far off the rails these two will tumble becomes the question because it’s obvious they’re going down. A word of caution: The production portrays graphic violence.
Their mousy 16-year-old daughter, Rosy, seems to gain strength as her parents’ lives swirl around the drain. Though she acts like a cadet around her father, always calling him “Sir,“ Rosy moves from skittish girl to resolute prophet fully expecting a bloody tragedy to unfold. Gina Hughes skillfully navigates the eerie edges of Rosy who becomes the play’s singular circumspect conscience.
Much of the play’s weaknesses lie in its two remaining under-written caricatures. Jason Kuykendall’s sleazy bartender, Fred Weber, lacks definition beyond a sleepy creepiness. Tara Sissom’s motel maid, Eva, is an obvious trashy floozy of that particular place and time. Fred and Eva are both what they seem to be, but neither adds a sense of dread or sexual edge despite their leering guilelessness.
Director Jerry Montoya’s tightly paced production moves smoothly through the scattershot events but doesn’t quite create the noirish physical space or tone of tragic inevitability Henley’s gothic drama needs to succeed.
While B Street has a gained a reputation for its comedies, it also regularly offers something adventurous and different. While this production doesn’t completely adhere, it is often exciting in its dark audacity.
What: Beth Henley’s dark drama set 1964 in a Mississippi at a motel tells the story of a respected dentist’s seedy fall from grace. With Kurt Johnson, Jamie Jones, Tara Sissom, Jason Kuykendall and Gina Hughes. Running time 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission. The production portrays graphic violence.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays through June 7.
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Cost:$23-$35, $5 student rush
Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org