PLAYWRIGHT BETH HENLEY BELIEVES IN LOVE. IT’s THE PRIMARY CURRENCY IN ALL HER PLAYS, despite it sometimes being of not much use to her characters, who are often set on life trajectories so self-involved or devoid of genuine connection that they wouldn’t recognize love if it socked them hard in the face. It’s there, though, vibrating in the air alongside the more obvious currents of hope and fear and anger, lending a poignant note of possibility to the uncomprehending mess the characters have made of their lives. In her breakthrough play Crimes of the Heart, a 1981 Pulitzer winner (and an Oscar nominee five years later for best adapted screenplay), about the contentious MaGrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Miss., Henley mined the reservoirs of love that survived the sisters’ dysfunctional upbringing, allowing it to generate a healing glow over their bumpy reunion.
Now, judging from the tenderness quotient in Henley’s latest play, The Jacksonian, published complete in our current issue, love’s redemptive glow has dimmed. Separated by three-plus decades and more than a dozen other works for the stage, the two plays nevertheless share some salient Henley assets. They’re both set, via impeccable linguistic and atmospheric accuracy, in her home state of Mississippi—this time in Jackson, where Henley was born and raised—where social divisions are breached at one’s peril and family secrets are prone to fester to the point of violence.
Some of the same dark currents course through the work of two other playwrights featured in these pages. Like Henley, Nathan Louis Jackson draws upon painful family dynamics to shape the seriocomic action in his plays—and he’s as steeped in the culture of the great Midwest as Henley is in that of the Delta South. In the plays of Marcus Gardley, which are often set, incidentally, in Henley’s native landscape, the region’s rituals and eccentricities are viewed through a different, and profoundly poetic, lens.
In the feature well, there’s a wealth of further observation about how plays reflect our life and times. Asolo Rep artistic director Michael Edwards is a history-sensitive observer intent on shaping a comprehensive theatrical image of Americans for his South Florida audiences, and he waxes eloquent on the topic for arts reporter Daniel Sack. Writer Robert L. Neblett fast-forwards the discussion to the edge of the future, as he attempts to limn a new theatrical genre for geeks.
How, then, does love fit into the picture? While it’s of little help to Henley’s hapless denizens of The Jacksonian (for whom emotional commitment can actually prove lethal), there’s some indication in Neblett’s essay that love is a primary motivator in high-tech, trans-dimensional geek-land. Seattle actor Rachel Jackson, operating a puppet representing the Supreme Court’s Right Honorable Ruth Monster Ginsberg, was recently called upon to join a pair of her fellow performers in “nerdly matrimony,” Neblett reports, concluding his article with puppet-meister Jackson’s unlikely but uplifting observation: “Geek theatre is all about heart.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!