Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 22 June 2022

Review: Corsicana at Playwrights Horizons

Playwrights Horizons ⋄ 2 June-10 July

A woman with Down syndrome, her brother, their mother’s best friend, and an artist who avoids human interaction populate a small town in this contemplative, moving new play by Will Arbery. Lane Williamson reviews.

Lane Williamson

“Corsicana” at Playwrights Horizons (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

“We’re just little kids,” Christopher says to his sister, Ginny, in the first scene of Will Arbery’s Corsicana at Playwrights Horizons. “No, we’re adults,” she replies. “I’m 34 years old and you’re 33 years old…So we have to be adults…So you have to figure that out.” The four characters of Arbery’s new play are all figuring things out: how to mature, how to move on, how to love, how to express. And they’re all taking care of each other in little ways. 

With Corsicana, Arbery continues his investigation of the American family–both the biological and communal varieties. He mixes the disparate loneliness of his former play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, with the deeply messy familial bond seen in Plano to mold a more languorous, meditative play that retains the tension of his prior works. We keep waiting for “something to happen,” but Corsicana doesn’t give us that. Instead, it spreads out slowly, like a spill on the floor, coating the theatre.

Ginny (Jamie Brewer) and Christopher (Will Dagger) have recently lost their mother. Ginny, who has Down syndrome, spent most of her time with her and now spends that time with Christopher, who isn’t sure how to keep Ginny occupied while he teaches film at the community college. Their mother’s best friend, Justice (Deirdre O’Connell), comes by with groceries and suggestions, always willing to help them out. She connects Christopher with her friend, Lot (Harold Surratt), an artist who lives outside the town and is “opposed to money”, but agrees to make music with Ginny while Christopher is at work. From there, they all seek things from each other, and from the world, pulled by yearnings and blocked by fears.

Arbery doesn’t seek to explain their motivations or their thoughts in black and white. The dialogue is often fragmentary; sentences are broken by intruding thoughts or rephrased multiple times before they reach their period. These are people who are feeling a lot and can’t verbalize it all, but they’re trying. As the play goes on, it’s clear that nobody wants to hide from anything, they’re just working out how best to approach it. 

Ginny and Christopher are based on Arbery’s relationship with his own sister who has Down syndrome and the characters feel authentic as a result. There is a shorthand between them where there can be a skip in the conversation that they both understand, but is not communicated verbally. Ginny is forthright in her primary wants; she’s not afraid to say what she’s thinking. Jamie Brewer gives her a devilish sense of humor. There’s mischief behind her eyes until there’s not, and when that twinkle goes away, Brewer lets us see the pain inside Ginny, the hollowness left by the absence of her mother. Arbery and Brewer avoid infantilizing Ginny. They show us, and Ginny tells us, that she is an adult woman, with opinions and desire. She is not reduced to just her Down syndrome. It is a part of her, but it’s not the only thing. Brewer relishes in exploring those elements, showing us how full her life can be.

Christopher is trying to keep it all together, which is clearly a struggle, but he’s not allowing it to show. When Justice suggests he go visit some friends, it’s like he had forgotten the mere concept of companionship. Will Dagger has a remarkable energy, both beaten down, but optimistic. He performs a bravura monologue in the second act that opens up and folds back in on itself several times. It’s a masterful piece of writing, but you never feel the work of the playwright. Dagger expertly manages to make the complicated text feel like it’s coming from him as he delivers it, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. 

As Lot, Harold Surratt has a similar challenge in that much of his dialogue is clipped short and/or muttered to himself. Surratt crafts a character that exists entirely in the things we don’t know about him. Every time a piece of his past comes up in conversation, it feels like we’re learning too much, like we’ve crossed a line and need to back up. Instead of needing to know more about him, what isn’t revealed feels more important. In Surratt’s performance, it’s imperative to give Lot his privacy, to respect his boundaries–he lives on his own, behind a chained-up gate, and doesn’t welcome company, but he’s never threatening. Surratt gives him an overarching sense of gentleness; he’s more afraid of himself than other people. 

Deirdre O’Connell treats each word of Arbery’s play with equal importance, often making a single line feel like an entire speech. Justice is the kind of person who says she has an “extra” burrito, because she knows you might be hungry, but doesn’t want you to think she bought it for you (which she did). Christopher overlooks the nuances of Justice, as a person, and then is surprised when he relates to her. O’Connell plays her as someone who is always listening, always tuned in to what other people are saying they need, often at the expense of her own needs. When she finally realizes what she wants for herself, it paralyzes her, and O’Connell scales Justice’s evolution in minute ways, never letting us see the arc until it’s already passed by. It’s a masterful performance.

Director Sam Gold paces the play with deliberate space for the slowness of life to wrap around the text. The dialogue is often quick, but the scenes take the time to rest so they’re fully absorbed. On Laura Jellinek and Cate McCrea’s set, there are two identical couches and kitchen tables that mirror each other. The couches slowly rotate to show changes of time, but not of space. Gold often uses the time it takes for the couches to turn to let the scenes settle before a new one begins. Life in New York is fast and frenetic. In Corsicana, Texas, it’s unhurried and calm. A large metal awning rolls out over the first few rows to symbolize Lot’s live/workspace on the outskirts of town. The lighting design by Isabella Byrd brings the Texas sun through the metal and plastic, but also allows for the importance of shadow and darkness at other times. They’re equally important, just as we know and do not know the characters.

Corsicana is packed full of emotion under its tightly locked lid. Like Samuel D. Hunter with Idaho, Will Arbery is quickly establishing himself as the poet of Texas loneliness. He is one of the most exciting playwrights working in the American theatre, stretching the form to new shapes and expanding his voice with each successive play. In the hands of Gold, his team, and the four brilliant actors, Corsicana is a contemplative, moving play that’s not to be missed. 

Lane Williamson

Lane Williamson is co-editor of Exeunt and a contributing critic at The Stage. He is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.

Review: Corsicana at Playwrights Horizons Show Info

Produced by Playwrights Horizons

Directed by Sam Gold

Written by Will Arbery

Scenic Design Laura Jellinek, Cate McCrea (set), Qween Jean (costumes)

Lighting Design Isabella Byrd

Sound Design Justin Ellington

Cast includes Jamie Brewer, Will Dagger, Deirdre O'Connell, Harold Surratt

Original Music Joanna Sternberg

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2hr 30min


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