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."
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The two appear opposites on the surface -- Harris laconic and withdrawn, quietly fervent, Madigan full of cheer and brio and charm.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."
Madigan and Harris were at the first reading of "The Jacksonian" three years ago, voicing the same parts they will now be playing on stage. Headly was also there at the reading and subsequently got the play to fellow Chicagoan Falls, formerly head of the Goodman Theater. Eventually Randall Arney, the Geffen's artistic director, offered them a slot.
"It's a gift to work on it," Harris says. "Like all fine plays, this thing is bottomless, you just keep exploring it. It just keeps going deeper, down into the swamp" -- a description that drew laughs from Madigan and Henley.
An honest relationship
In the play, Perch has separated from his wife and teenage daughter (Rous) for reasons that are murky but point to domestic violence. Not unlike Eddie, the cowboy Harris played in "Fool for Love," Perch exhibits a certain decorum that seems to be hiding combustible properties.
"I've never gone into a play or film with as little preconception as I did going into this," Harris says. "Just no idea of where it was going to end up, who this guy was necessarily."
"Ed and I really do have the luxury that we can talk about these things," Madigan says. "I think that for both of us, how great that this is an open canvas and collaborating with Beth. Let's see what we're all going to come up with. And that doesn't happen -- at least to me -- very often."
Madigan's character, Susan, is also damaged in a crucial way that must be divined through Henley's jump cuts in chronology and poetic bloodletting.
"Amy and Ed both have that great ability to not shy away from darkness but be able to incorporate the humanity of the character," Henley says. "It seems like they're holding two things in their hands at once -- something that's fragile and something that's burning. And that's a very hard thing to do. You've got to be spiritually there and intellectually there. You've got to be smart in a way that doesn't mess things up."
With their 30th wedding anniversary approaching, Harris and Madigan are playing against type as a couple in Hollywood. They have one child, daughter Lily, 18.
"The reality of the business is that I get a chance to work more than Amy does, being a man," Harris says, talking about how they've made their marriage work against great odds. "We've been pretty careful. I've never been one of those guys who's worked back to back to back and is always gone. Because I want to maintain the family relationship. Communication -- we keep those lines open. And we love each other."
When: Through March 25
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
Tickets: $94 to $99 through March 19; $99 to $139 March 20 to 25
Info: www.geffenplayhouse.com or (310) 208-2028