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Theatre in Review: Corsicana (Playwrights Horizons)

Deirdre O'Connell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The average summertime high temperature in Corsicana, Texas runs to well over ninety degrees, which might explain the heavy atmosphere of languor that has overtaken Playwrights Horizons, where Will Arbery's new drama is currently playing. Corsicana conjures four solitary souls posed, like tumbleweeds, against a stark, minimally furnished stage; because Arbery is such a fine writer, each character is an intriguing enigma, but for a dauntingly long time we wait for something meaningful to happen among them. It finally does, but so late and in such scattered fashion that satisfaction is not guaranteed. Whether you think Sam Gold's production, which recalls the mumblecore films of the early twenty-first century, is beautifully understated or merely suffering from iron-poor blood, Corsicana is challenging, and not always in a good way.

The characters include Christopher, a self-described "out-of-shape failed filmmaker," now a teacher at the local community college, and Ginny, his sister, who has Down syndrome. Marooned emotionally since the death of their mother, neither seems able to take a forward step. Indeed, Ginny has abandoned her nursing home job, opting to hang out on the couch, snacking and watching Disney videos on her iPad. Christopher, trying to empathize, says "We're just, like, little kids. We don't know what to do. Like we're waiting for her to come in and just be like, let's eat, let's go to church, let's...but we're just little kids." "No," replies Ginny in her usual point-blank manner. "We're adults."

Well, yes and not: The siblings rely, to a remarkable degree, on the assistance of Justice, a librarian and their mother's great friend. A militant optimist who takes on people as projects, Justice is also busy promoting the work of Lot, a middle-aged recluse whose sculpture might be the next big thing in outsider art. Lot is also a skilled musician, and Justice has a plan to connect him with Ginny on a songwriting project designed to pull both of them out of their anxious, grief-stricken selves. (If a song is produced, Christopher plans to make a music video.) It doesn't exactly turn out that way, although all four characters gradually fumble their way toward a possibly healing realignment.

And that, basically, is it. Corsicana doesn't have a major point of conflict -- it can barely be said to have a plot -- possibly because even the gentlest interaction tends to produce scar tissue among these members of the walking wounded. The first act is marked by an alarming case of low energy, with the characters pairing off for one-on-ones that yield the tiniest of epiphanies. Even a late-in-Act-One intimation that Ginny was sexually abused (possibly by Christopher) turns out to be a misunderstanding. If you're going to enjoy Corsicana, you must content yourself with the little details.

The second act improves sharply, thanks to set pieces that demonstrate Arbery's skill at probing the contours of melancholia. In an especially remarkable scene, Christopher recalls the physical abuse he suffered at his fathers' hands and the desperately appeasing letter he subsequently sent to his parents, essentially saying, "Thank you for giving me so much shame." His rediscovery of the document leads to a strange event that might be evidence of a profound loss or a sign of forgiveness; you'll have to decide. Justice has a lovely speech about her long-aborning book on anarchism. ("It's about an unforgiving land. It's about unrealized utopias. It's about how failing is the point.") To the extent that Corsicana has a climax, it involves a tense, delicate negotiation between Justice and Lot; among other things, it lays bare the incident in high school, involving a disabled girl, that set him on the path of his lonely existence.

Given the cast, it's almost redundant to say that each of these scenes -- indeed, the entire script -- is impeccably performed. Will Dagger, who made a strong impression last fall in The Antelope Party, is ideal as Christopher, in whom a wistful hopefulness and heartbreaking sense of futility uneasily cohabit. Jamie Brewer's Ginny is equally blunt and vulnerable, especially in a speech asserting that she is what she is, not a problem for anyone to solve. Harold Surratt underplays expertly, highlighting how Lot has spent his life hidden behind the guardrails of his anxiety. It's no small praise to note that all three hold their own opposite the great Deirdre O'Connell, whose Justice is equally skeptical and radiant, a practical mystic -- in her case, it's not a contradiction -- who only wants to make everyone's lives better. Let's just say that when she says she sees a ghost, you will be convinced of it.

Still, so much fragility becomes wearying, and one begins to wonder if two-and-a-half hours isn't too much time to spend with the members of this glass menagerie. Gold is determined to keep the action whisper-quiet, so much so that the play threatens to blow away, a leaf in a summer wind. Adding to the hushed mood is the scenic design of Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea, a precise display of scattered furniture pieces and props indicative of emptiness, with an unnecessary turntable effect and a canopy that gets moved up and downstage for no particular purpose. At least Isabella Byrd's lighting occasionally adds a touch of color. In rare production without incidental music, Justin Ellington provides a handful of sound effects, including wind chimes and a radio broadcast. Costume designer Qween Jean once again shows her penetrating eye for detail; check out the Béla Tarr T-shirt that Will wears, proof of his ardent cinephilia.

It's possible that the faint pulse of Gold's production does the script a disservice; reading it days later, I registered points of conflict that had slipped by me in the theatre. Yet it's hard to escape the feeling that Arbery has delivered more a still life than a drama, and its often-lyrical writing might be better experienced in a novel. His previous work, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, engaged with its startlingly original look at disaffected Catholic conservatives whose influence on the body politic is a matter of concern to us all; by contrast, Corsicana is a journey into a private interior that may prove more gratifying to its creators than to members of the audience. --David Barbour

(23 June 2022)

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