Michael Lamont
Tanner Stransky
February 17, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

Beth Henley is best known for her 1979 play Crimes of the Heart, a dark and twisty Southern family drama that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and established her as a creative force with a disturbing and smart point of view. More than 30 years after that seminal work, the playwright has churned out yet another creepy, gothic piece: The Jacksonian, a look at dysfunction in the Deep South enjoying its world premiere at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse (through March 25).

The play is set in 1964 at a small, sleazy motel — its name gives the play its title — on the outskirts of Jackson, Miss. The Jacksonian appears as something out of a Hitchcock movie: The eerie set features a smoky cocktail lounge, a single-occupancy room, and an outdoor ice machine. The players are just as unsettling. Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) is a bartender and prime suspect in a murder across town. Eva White (Glenne Headly) is a vampy, racist waitress who agrees to provide Fred an alibi — she implicates a black man — if he’ll marry her. (Fred tries to fend her off by telling her that he’ll die soon of a ”hardened heart.”) Meanwhile, disgraced dentist Bill Perch (Ed Harris) takes visits from his mumbling high school daughter, Rosy (Bess Rous) during an estrangement from his unhinged wife, Susan (Oscar nominee Amy Madigan).

The characters in the two main story strands overlap and intersect from the beginning — Fred is counseling Bill at the bar, lamenting his plight, and it goes from there — and the action shifts back and forth in time over the course of nine months. Visual cues — mostly Christmas lights and references to the holidays — help establish where The Jacksonian is on the timeline. But many playgoers are likely to get lost in the sudden time leaps. Rosy obtusely attempts to stitch together scenes with short, morose, spotlighted monologues, but the creepy, dramatic speeches only serve to confuse matters. Mostly, the show aims for shock: In a particularly wild intersection, Fred demonstrates his love for Rosy — and not Eva — by swallowing a butter knife like a sword and bleeding everywhere. The drug-addicted Bill gets high on chloroform with Eva as the two prance around in their underwear. Fred whips out his manhood and makes an dirty-old-man pass at Rosy behind the bar. And, eventually, someone commits a show-ending murder that’s simply chilling.

Despite the uneven narrative, the performances are brilliant. In particular, Madigan delivers a couple roaring, crazy-laced monologues that would be worthy of several rewinds. The scene-stealer, though, is Rous, whose shuffling, demented Rosy nabs the most laughs amid the otherwise dark scenes. The Jacksonian feels rough and slightly unfinished. Though Henley touches on themes of race, family dysfunction, desperation, and crime, they never seems to quite coalesce. Purely as a character portrait, though, it’s worth checking into The Jacksonian. B

(Tickets: geffenplayhouse.com or 310-208-2028)

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