Corsicana is a heartfelt and absorbing family drama that’s been given a pretentiously distracting production: just for starters, its cryptic houselights up preamble is at odds with the play’s naturalism. Playwright Will Arbery is a Pulitzer Prize-finalist for his heralded oddball right-wing political exploration, Heroes of the Fourth Turning. Here, he offers a mostly conventional present-day clash of siblings’ tale which he has stated is autobiographical.
Thirty-three-year-old single Dallas, Texas, community college film teacher Christopher has returned to his hometown Corsicana, following his mother’s sudden death. There, he tends to his 34-year-old half-sister Ginny, who has Downs syndrome, does volunteer work and aspires to be a singer. She has become withdrawn and so Christopher pays Lot, an eccentric sculptor and musician in his 60’s to meet with Ginny to write songs. Christopher has his own dysfunctions and is in therapy. Then there’s librarian and self-described anarchist Justice, a vivacious earth mother in her late 60’s. She was a close friend of the siblings’ mother, is their honorary aunt and acts as everyone’s cheerleader.
Arbery’s polished first act skillfully introduces his down-home complex characters and sets up conflicts and a plot. His freewheeling second act nicely ties everything up. With its pleasing reflective dialogue and humane situations, Corsicana is a worthy and resonant work. However, there is director Sam Gold.
Mr. Gold’s notable career has ranged from accomplished simplicity to a heavy-handed preoccupation with concepts and optics. His recent disjointed Broadway production of Macbeth, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, is an example of his latter concerns. In Corsicana, he is in overdrive.
“A barebones space in the middle of nowhere — full of art that we never see” and a “one-story, ranch style, doesn’t get great light” is how Arbery describes Lot’s and Ginny’s dwellings. Scenic designer Laura Jellinek provides a cavernous hangar-like space accented with industrial gray and fine furnishings that slowly shifts locales by use of a turntable. Isabella Byrd’s lighting design accentuates “doesn’t get great light” by emphasizing dimness with dramatic fluctuations. Justin Ellington’s sound design of effects and composer Joanna Sternberg’s modernistic score is equally as obtrusive.
Gold adds all sorts of extraneous stage business not in Arbery’s script such as characters appearing on view when not in scenes, characters symbolically opening walls and people hanging onto pillars. Though caught up in hollow auteurist flourishes, Gold does attain sparkling performances from his cast.
With his distinctive marked speech pattern and soulful countenance, Will Dagger as Christopher is a riveting everyman. As Ginny, Jamie Brewer delivers a spirited, feisty and poignant performance. That Ms. Brewer has Downs syndrome herself informs her rich characterization. Harold Surratt’s majestic portrayal of Lot combines folksiness, serenity and dry comic timing.
New York stage veteran Deirdre O’Connell recently won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play on her first such nomination for her mesmerizing and memorable performance in Dana H. Theatergoers will have the pleasure of experiencing her gifts in Corsicana through her luminous turn as the good-natured Justice. The red-maned and radiant Ms. O’Connell’s seemingly spontaneous soothing vocal delivery, physical expressiveness and captivating presence totally captures this guardian angel figure. Costume designer Qween Jean’s flowing rustic attire for O’Connell and choice streetwear for the rest of the company are all ideal.
Presentational excesses do not mar Corsicana’s appealing warm sensibility and its ensemble’s power.
Corsicana (through July 17, 2022)
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200, or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission