Take a Shrill Pill

Jonathan Reynolds' Stonewall Jackson's House takes an unfortunate detour from the incisive to the didactic

Stonewall Jackson's House

Theatre at St. John's, 5000 Washington Place (at Kingshighway)

Call 314-719-2855.

Stonewall Jackson's House, the current offering from City Theatre, is an oddity within an oddity. The plot is never quite what it appears to be. Luigi Pirandello wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author; this is five characters in search of a soapbox.

The inflamed author, Jonathan Reynolds, is rather an oddity himself. The son of a newspaper magnate, Reynolds grew up in New York City insulated from the travails of daily life. As a screenwriter, his name has been attached to some stupefying misfires -- not that anyone should blame him for the shortcomings of My Stepmother Is an Alien or Leonard Part 6. (I tell you all this because, although the City Theatre playbill includes biographies of everyone associated with the production, right down to the interns, it neglects to include the playwright.) Currently, the socially conservative Reynolds writes a politics-laced food column for the New York Times -- think Calvin Trillin garnished with a smattering of William Safire. Tall and lean with silver-gray hair, Reynolds resembles Peter Finch in the 1976 movie/diatribe Network. Like Howard Beale, the "mad prophet of the airwaves" whom Finch portrays, Reynolds is "mad as hell" about the state of the world. Or at least the welfare state. Stonewall Jackson's House is so crammed with Reynolds' litany of complaints that it runs the risk of imploding.

The play begins on a terrific note. In Lexington, Virginia, a young African-American docent named LaWanda (Kathi A. Bentley) leads two couples on a tour of the only home ever owned by that fervent patriot of the Confederacy, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. She is especially irritated by two all-knowing Alabama crackers, played by Jared Sanz-Agero and Ruth Heyman. "It ain't easy being white trash," the husband concedes. "I can't believe how full of hate I am," LaWanda confides as she politely indulges the buffoonish tourists. By contrast, she is so attracted to the supportive, protective -- not to mention wealthy -- Ohio couple (Kevin Beyer and Carolyne Hood) that LaWanda brazenly asks to return with them to their farm, where she would happily serve as their slave.

This broadsword of an opening scene is cleverly written and delightfully performed. Beyer is especially persuasive. As a well-intentioned Midwestern liberal, he is a cliché come to life. When not speaking, he sucks in his lower lip as if to hide his mouth completely. He punctuates dialogue with bulging eyes that serve as exclamation points.

But all too soon the script takes the first of its questionable U-turns. Without going into specifics -- for to reveal the play's surprises would be to deprive it of its very reason for being -- suffice to say that if Stonewall Jackson's House were a newspaper, what begins in the comics section eventually moves over to the op-ed page. The witty, satirical exchanges that ping-pong through the opening scene soon devolve into a monograph that is neither witty nor satirical. Viewers who are interested in Reynolds' opinions on racism, anti-Semitism, feminism and the like might find his tract absorbing; others will be less tolerant.

But it's not solely the decaying American social scene that consumes Reynolds' attention (how he loves to smear about overused words like "survivor"); he also takes aim at theater itself. Biracial casting? You bet it gets discussed. Reynolds also pokes fun at other writers. Surely his usage of the word "mendacity" is a veiled nod to Tennessee Williams, who restored that noun to vogue in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Arthur Miller's The Crucible gets picked over more than once. And isn't that reference to "the poetry of the illiterate" a swipe at David Mamet?

But Reynolds was so focused on weighing in on every hot-button issue of the day that he neglected to structure a satisfying play. Three years after Stonewall Jackson's House was produced off-Broadway in 1997, David Auburn's Proof opened on Broadway. The key plot point in Auburn's play is perilously similar to Reynolds' Act One ending. Yet no one accused Auburn of plagiarism. (To the contrary, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.) Why not? Because his theatrical surprise was detonated within the context of a well-structured script. When it comes to reaching an audience, it's often true that how a play is crafted is more important than what it has to say.

One senses that director Christopher Limber didn't know what to do with this marathon harangue. The use of rear-screen slide projections might have seemed imaginative in the abstract, but too much light spills onto the curiously angled screens, diminishing the images. In Act Two most of the actors are so immobile that the production might as well be a staged reading. Stonewall Jackson's House might have a lot on its agitated mind, but as mounted here, don't be surprised if by evening's end the viewer's own mind is reduced to a bleary daze.

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