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THEATER : BACKSTAGE

United offstage, separated on

Married actors Ed Harris and Amy Madigan star as an estranged couple in playwright Beth Henley's 'The Jacksonian' at Geffen.

February 12, 2012|Sean Mitchell
  • Ed Harris and wife Amy Madigan, left, are starring in a new play, "The Jacksonian," by Beth Henley at the Geffen Theatre.
Ed Harris and wife Amy Madigan, left, are starring in a new play, "The… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

The late Robert Altman, while he was making a movie of Sam Shepard's play "Fool for Love," tried to describe the piece to a reporter. "I'm not going to synopsize it," the director said. "It's not a story, and it's not an idea. It's a painting. It's about a place, it's about a culture, a time, relationships, people's awareness or unawareness of their own history."

Ed Harris was in the original production of "Fool for Love" at San Francisco's Magic Theatre in 1983, and now he is in a new play by Beth Henley, "The Jacksonian," about which Altman might have made the same observation. "The Jacksonian," which has its world premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, is full of fireworks, humor, history and poetry.

"The Jacksonian" takes place in a starkly imagistic world that reminds us of how the theater is different from cinema. Harris is the unusual actor equipped for both, someone who can hurl himself through the frames of big studio films ("The Right Stuff," "The Truman Show," "A Beautiful Mind"), then walk the outer banks of reality in the edgy plays of authors like Shepard, Murray Mednick, Neil LaBute and Henley. He was seen here at the Geffen in 2010 performing LaBute's one-man Oedipal drama, "Wrecks."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 16, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Jacksonian": An article in the Feb. 12 Arts & Books section about the Geffen Playhouse production of "The Jacksonian" identified director Robert Falls as former head of the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Falls is still with the Goodman, serving as artistic director.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 26, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Jacksonian": A Feb. 12 article about the Geffen Playhouse production of "The Jacksonian" identified director Robert Falls as former head of the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Falls is still with the Goodman, serving as artistic director.

Harris and his wife, Amy Madigan, met while doing an Edwin Alan Baker play in 1981 and later were members of the MET Theatre company, putting on plays in a 99-seat theater on Oxford Avenue in Hollywood. They are working together onstage again for the first time in more than 20 years in "The Jacksonian," part of an ensemble that includes Bill Pullman, Glenne Headly and Bess Rous under the direction of Robert Falls.

"I think it's either a really good idea if you're a couple or a really bad idea," Madigan says, "but Ed and I enjoy working together."

The two married in 1983 while playing an adulterous couple in the film "Places in the Heart" and have been in seven films together, including "Alamo Bay" and "Pollock," which Harris also directed.

The two appear opposites on the surface -- Harris laconic and withdrawn, quietly fervent, Madigan full of cheer and brio and charm. "Here, have my ice tea," Madigan says eagerly to a reporter when she and Harris and Henley sit at the playhouse. They have been rehearsing "The Jacksonian" all morning.

It's possible Harris is still in character, because he is playing the troubled and mysterious dentist at the center of Henley's eerie, time-shifting scenario, set in Jackson, Miss., the playwright's hometown. Perch, the dentist, is separated from his wife (played by Madigan) and living at the Jacksonian Hotel in 1964.

The civil rights movement is in full march, and violence is in the air. There may have been a murder, but this is not clear. The play is not a murder mystery exactly.

"I don't know what you'd call it," Harris says.

"It's a play," Henley says, "that is just sort of about ... evil."

There is a pause and then laughter from Madigan at such a bald statement.

Harris says, "It's about the history of this place and what's in the earth."

"And the depths of the human heart," Henley says, "and how dark we can be."

A play with deep roots

Henley has never been shy about finding comic relief in tragedy and the macabre, as if the two are commonly joined in the lives (and deaths) of Southerners. Her best-known play, "Crimes of the Heart," which won the Pulitzer in 1981, is set in Mississippi, and she has set other plays in Mississippi, New Orleans and the South. But this is her first play set in Jackson, where she grew up in the 1950s and '60s, aware that colored drinking fountains were "not right" but meanwhile "the people that you love and who teach you and feed and clothe you are pretending like it is."

Alluding to the characters in "The Jacksonian," she says such willful negation of empathy takes its toll. "I feel there's a huge cost to that."

"All the characters are affected by the reality of living in this place that is totally segregated," Harris says, "where the N-word is used all the time, where people have been lynched, where justice has not been done, and it's all coming to a head in 1964."

To Madigan, "The Jacksonian" is "very much about people trying to connect and trying to find love and how those opportunities are missed and how devastating that can be to you and your family. The personal is political."

In a sense this collaboration began 25 years ago when Madigan auditioned for Henley's Depression-era play "The Lucky Spot" at the Manhattan Theatre Club. She got the part (as an estranged wife sent to prison in Louisiana for a jealousy-provoked assault), and though the play was not a critical success, the two stayed in touch.

Madigan and Harris became members of Henley's Los Angeles play-reading circle, that is, actors Henley invites to her Brentwood home whenever she has a new play ready to be read out loud.

"They read it cold," Henley says. "When I hear it, I just want to see what their instincts are -- without taking any information from me. And that helps me a lot."

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