Chicago Theatre Review
Into the Darkness
The Jacksonian – Profiles Theatre
Nothing can really prepare audiences for the bizarrely fascinating, twisted, darkly humorous story that’s unfolding at Profiles Theatre. Set inside a tacky, rundown motel on the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi, Beth Henley’s latest, somewhat autobiographical Southern Gothic unfolds in a nonlinear fashion during eight months in 1964. The lights come up on Rosy, a naive, soft-spoken teenager wrapped in a blanket, who serves as both narrator and participant in this tragic tale. We learn of an accident and a murder that took place at The Jacksonian, as she guides us through the incidents that took place amidst a swirling fog of nightmares.
Rosy is the daughter of Bill Perch, a respected, smooth-talking dentist, and his mentally unstable wife, Susan. The couple’s marital problems slowly become revealed as the play unfolds. As the story bounces between Spring and Christmas we witness Bill and Susan’s emotional health crumbling along with their marriage. Against this story there’s much discussion about a robbery and murder that took place at a local gas station. An elderly black man is said to be in custody for this crime, but it soon becomes clear to Rosy (and the audience) that the man is innocent. Fred, the smarmy motel bartender, who enjoys hitting on every female he encounters, seems to be the logical suspect. The crime may have been aided by his sometimes finance Eva, a fortune-hunting, Klan-supporting maid and waitress at the Jacksonian. When Eva becomes bored with her bartender beau, she goes after the motel guests, in this case the more affluent dentist, while Fred seduces Bill’s bi-polar wife and daughter. Susan continually bursts in and out of the motel, sometimes sometimes screaming and crying, sometimes comforting her daughter or becoming playful with her husband.
Joe Jahraus’ intriguing production resides in a land somewhere between film noir and an adult comic book. It’s a dark, unsettling piece that Beth Henley has created, now enjoying its midwest premiere. As in most of her plays, Henley has created a cast of wildly eccentric characters whose dialogue teeters madly between pastel-colored Tennessee Williams-like poetry and gritty, realistic 1960’s street vernacular.
The five-member ensemble is strong, particularly Tim Curtis, in his highly energized portrayal of Bill Perch. He plays an unstable man who abruptly fluctuates between the real world and a realm of fantasy. Bill’s obsessive devotion to dentistry and oral hygiene that carries him into a world of unorthodox sexual practices is brilliantly played. One minute he’s being a tender, nurturing parent to Rosy, the next he’s raging at Susan and beating her. Juliana Liscio makes an auspicious debut as Rosy, the innocent teenager who’s also wise beyond her years. As a kind of Cassandra character, Rosy speaks in riddles that offer prophetic pronouncements and advice, while guiding the audience through her own horrific wonderland.
Katie-Bell Springmann has cleverly telescoped the seedy motel room into the same space as the motel bar. A dining table, shared by both rooms, unifies her design. Floating above everything is a balcony where the ice machine is located, and from the beginning it foreshadows the bloody tragedy that will conclude this 90-minute drama. Michael Rathbun’s dim, moody lighting design accentuates both the quirky gallows humor and the mysterious calamity that unfolds. Raquel Adorno’s detailed costumes speak volumes about the characters before they ever open their mouths, and Oliver Hickman’s nuanced sound design and original music brings it all together.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Crimes of the Heart” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” Beth Henley’s latest offering is said to have been sparked by events from her own childhood. This quirky play, with its darkly comic elements, springs back and forth between ominous, Southern Gothic storytelling and no-nonsense, spirited realism. Sometimes this lands with success, while at other times the results are just unsettling. This murder mystery, laced with sex and violence, depicts a world filled with greed, prejudice and desperation. It’s not a world where most of us would want to live, but a short, voyeuristic visit can be fascinating.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 21-October 11 by Profiles Theatre on their Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway,Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-549-1815 or by going to www.profilestheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.