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Theatre Review by Marc Miller` - June 22, 2022

Deirdre O'Connell, Will Dagger, and Jamie Brewer
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Will Arbery is an outlier. His previous play at Playwrights Horizons, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, introduced us New York sophisticates to a subculture we'd probably never met, and hoped we never would: Catholic rural conservatives, the sort to strike fear in the typical Upper West Sider's heart. And he humanized them, and offered a cross-cultural bridge the theater too seldom provides. His new Playwrights Horizons premiere, Corsicana, similarly plunks us down in a habitat we probably know little of, the small titular Texas town, and introduces us to people we likely wouldn't meet on the 1 train or at Yankee Stadium. This time, Arbery's effort is well-meaning and affectionate, but rather passive. Corsicana has some lovely passages, but it also has a lot of air.

What a laidback culture we're thrust into. Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea's revolving set depicts two nearly identical living rooms, sofa and dinette, the point being perhaps that in places like Corsicana, aesthetics don't count for much. There's also a plain white back-wall that gets pushed back and opened up sometimes, to illustrate ... the four characters opening themselves up, maybe? And Sam Gold's direction often has some of these characters just idling on the sidelines observing, even when the action is in no way about them, to illustrate ... I've no idea.

We first meet half-siblings Christopher (Will Dagger) and Ginny (Jamie Brewer). Christopher unenthusiastically teaches film at the local community college, and Ginny, like Arbery's own sister Julia, has Down syndrome. That's the essential engine of all the action. Both, having lost their beloved mom last Christmas, are unmoored, and Christopher diagnoses Ginny as being depressed–though, given her inconsistency and quicksilver changes of mood, it's hard to tell. Neither appears to have much of a life beyond these walls, and both rely on Justice (Deirdre O'Connell), the somewhat more savy local librarian/sometimes-writer, to keep them more engaged with an outside world that otherwise they seem happy to shut out.

Deirdre O'Connell and Harold Surratt
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
As for Justice, she's somewhat besotted with Lot (Harold Surratt). Lot I don't have figured out at all. A gifted artist and songwriter, he has completely turned his back on the world for decades, living without a phone and rejecting the capitalistic model that says you create art to sell. He's an enigma, variously surly and sympathetic and despondent and smart, and Surratt struggles to build a unified entity out of him. Lot regards Justice as a friend, though they argue plenty, and she may have more in mind for the two of them, for reasons that never reached row G.

To coax Ginny out of her malcontent, Christopher proposes engaging Lot to help her write a song. Lot's reluctant, and at first it doesn't go well at all. Yet as the four increasingly interact, and spend an enormous amount of time talking about dreams and ghosts and pterodactyls, something like a family forms. And Ginny does eventually write that song, which is uplifting, though it isn't good. Arbery's point seems to be about how we fashion shared realities and supportive relationships out of what we're given, which often isn't a lot. It's a point worth making. But did it have to be made this slowly? No way Corsicana has to run two hours forty-five minutes, unless Arbery and Gold mean to evoke the meandering passage of time in places like Corsicana. If that's their intent, they accomplish it too well.

Dagger nails a difficult Act Two monologue about a letter from his mother that may have been divine intervention, and Brewer, who does have Down syndrome, is quite winning, convincing us of both Ginny's inconsistent moods and the special insights and empathies of which people who have Down syndrome are sometimes capable. Justice is the liveliest and most engaging character, or maybe it just seems that way because Deirdre O'Connell is playing her. So precise, this actor, with such presence, and the uncanny ability to shift rhythms in mid-sentence. She also has an unusually poetic speech about love and the complexity of her parents' marriage, and she nails that.

Qween Jean's costumes are as unassuming as we'd expect Target-shopping people in Corsicana to wear, and Justin Ellington's sound design is refreshingly natural–it hardly feels like it's there, which is delightful, until the actors occasionally mumble and keep punchlines out of earshot.

Corsicana is about caretaking, and the caretaking we witness onstage can be touching, as when Ginny counsels Justice on romantic possibilities with a wisdom and exactitude we wouldn't have thought she had in her. But there's also a lot of small talk, God talk, needless repetition, and some truly terrible songs. Arbery appears to have written the play as a valentine to his sister, whom he clearly loves a lot, and to reveal the specialness and needs of those with Down syndrome to those of us who haven't had a lot of firsthand experience with it. But it's hard to construct taut drama when most of the characters, like Christopher and Lot and Ginny, are often inarticulate. Also, when they're just not all that interesting.

Through July 10, 2022
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
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