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A Critic and an Actor Change a Play The evolution of Beth Henley's "The Jacksonian"

By MARK PEIKERT

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Sometimes a new actor and the right review can help you reimagine a play. They certainly changed how director Robert Falls sees The Jacksonian, the latest drama from Beth Henley.

Originally performed at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse in 2012, the Jackson, Mississippi-set slice of Southern Gothic---about a group of desperate men and women in 1964, including a dentist, his estranged wife, and their teenage daughter---is now playing to rave reviews at Off-Broadway's The New Group. After helming the Geffen production, Falls is back on board, as is most of the original cast---Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, and Glenne Headly. However, Juliet Brett, as the tormented daughter, is a new addition, and her casting was prompted by the opportunity to take another crack at show.

"We felt like we could probably find another actor in New York City who could realize what Beth's intentions were a little more fully," says Falls. "We wanted someone young, and we found this remarkable 19 year-old, Juliet Brett, who just blew us away."

Falls says that Brett "single-handedly" altered the dynamic of the play: "We found things we did not see the first time, in part because a new actor was able to point us in a new direction."

Many other changes have also deepened the work. Falls didn't see The Jacksonian after its Geffen opening, for instance, but Henley went several times and found things she wanted to refine. And though Falls only read one L.A. review, it also lead to revisions.

He explains, "The only review I read and the only one Beth read was a rave review in the L.A. Times from Charles McNulty, although in that rave McNulty pointed out something he felt could be improved in the play, that the evil inherent in Mississippi [in 1965] might be better entwined in the personal. And this was something we had discussed and talked about in rehearsal, but it just never quite happened."

Because of McNulty's overall enthusiasm, Falls and Henley took another look at his quibbles and decided to make alterations. Falls points to an early conversation between Harris' dentist character and Pullman's bartender. "The first mention of the pervasive racism of the culture [in the L.A. production] was when Ed Harris looks at the newspaper and says, 'Look at that, another firebombing in Meridian.' And now he says, 'Have you seen this in the paper?' And the bartender says, 'What?' 'Another firebombing in Meridian.' 'No, I did not see that.' And then Ed Harris says, 'Third one this month.' That's just taking one little moment in the play, but by underlining it slightly, I believe the audience hears it more."

Falls laughs. "I don't often credit a critic with helping a play, but you don't often get the chance to do a play a second time."

In fact, he wishes he could return to scripts more often. "I find it really painful when you believe in a new play, and you do it once in Chicago or L.A., and then you never have a chance to do it again," he says. "Plays need that opportunity to be experienced a second time, a third time, with different audiences and in different times and places. I like to think in part that we're able to do good work [for The New Group] by building on work we did the first time around."

Mark Peikert is the senior editor at Backstage Magazine

Photo by Monique Carboni

Watch The New Group define "Table Read" in TDF's Theatre Dictionary!