In ‘Corsicana,’ playwright Will Arbery writes an ode to his sister with Down syndrome
The impulse to make art in tribute to a loved one is as old as Dante’s “La Vita Nuova,” inspired by his lifelong unrequited paramour, Beatrice Portinari, and as up-to-the-minute as Kanye West’s album “Donda,” dedicated to his mother. Will Arbery’s new play “Corsicana,” now running Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, warmly depicts a version of his relationship to his real-life older sister, Julia, who has Down syndrome and with whom he remains close.
But the dramatic acuity and theatrical imagination Arbery displayed in such earlier plays as “Plano” and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” have all but abandoned him in “Corsicana.” It has beautiful empathic moments, particularly in a few intimate scenes between Christopher (Will Dagger) and Ginny (Jamie Brewer), the stand-ins for the playwright and his sister, as they renegotiate an adult relationship whose patterns were set by a troubled childhood and more recently scrambled by the death of their mother. And the playwright gives us flashes of the high-flying monologic brilliance that was among the draws of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” particularly in a scene in which Christopher unburdens himself of a long-buried trauma and its possibly supernaturally directed healing.
“Corsicana” has beautiful empathic moments, but not the theatrical imagination of “Plano” or “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”
But the shape of “Corsicana,” named for the small Texas city in which it is set, is odd and stiff, qualities that are only exacerbated by director Sam Gold’s spare, often awkwardly formal staging. The play’s action hinges on Christopher’s plan to give Ginny a creative outlet by hiring an eccentric older artist named Lot (Harold Surratt) to write a song with her. The gesture, though well-meaning, is unutterably patronizing—both to Ginny, who doesn’t feel she needs this kind of help, and to Lot, something of a misanthrope who chafes at being employed as a kind of babysitter.
Once put together, these two don’t really spark to each other, as they might in a more formulaic play. Still, we are clearly meant to see the commonality between the Black outsider artist, with his tall tales about dinosaur ghosts and his resistance to categorization, and the sunny, misunderstood white woman with Down syndrome who would rather talk about Disney and pop stars. “We’re so complicated, people don’t want to think about it. So they make us more simple,” Lot tells her, in a tidy summation of their shared otherness. But in sketching these characters without giving them much to do or to strive for, other than the wish to be left alone, Arbery risks a similar simplification.
The impulse to make art in tribute to a loved one is as old as Dante’s “La Vita Nuova” and as up-to-the-minute as Kanye West’s album “Donda.”
The fourth member of the play’s lopsided quartet is Justice, a family friend played by the great Deirdre O’Connell, a recent Tony winner for her otherworldly performance in “Dana H.” Showing up to check in on others and serve as a sounding board for their concerns, Justice, as her name suggests, is less a real person than a metaphor, perhaps a guardian angel. She does speak of feeling haunted, often in broad daylight, by a man whose identity she can’t place, and confesses some unsaintly shortcomings. At one point she holds a manuscript of a book she’s writing and, when asked what it’s about, replies in part:
Well it’s about anarchism and gifts. About the belief that humans are fundamentally generous, or at least cooperative. That in our hearts, most of us really do want the good. It’s about the evils of centralized power, especially in a country as massive as the U.S.A., let alone a state as big as Texas. It’s about an unforgiving land. It’s about unrealized utopias. It’s about how failing is the point. It’s about surrender. It’s about small groups. It’s about community. It’s about the right to well-being. It’s about family. It’s about the dead. It’s about ghosts. It’s about gentle chaos. It’s about contracts of the heart.
That is “Corsicana” in a nutshell: It tells you what it’s about, to a fault, but mostly falters in dramatizing its ideas. The closest it comes to realizing its inspiration, appropriately enough, is in Jamie Brewer’s performance as Ginny. Brewer, a seasoned actor best known for roles on the FX show “American Horror Story,” renders Ginny with complication, wit and authenticity, and Gold’s matter-of-fact staging, though enervating in its overall effect on the play, has the considerable virtue of plainly placing Ginny onstage before us, in the process humanizing her and her Down syndrome with bracing particularity: how she walks, how she wears her jeans, how she flings herself across a couch in frustration at her brother. This powerful embodiment does more than 10 monologues could in telling us about her condition and how she feels about it (though the play gives us some of those too).
“Glass Menagerie” is another touchstone for “Corsicana,” as Tennessee Williams wrote his play as a kind of tribute to his sister, Rose.
This gesture recalls Gold’s Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie,” in which he cast Madison Ferris, a woman with muscular dystrophy, as Laura, putting her visible disability center stage and in the process shading that classic play in a starker, ultimately more empathetic light. Indeed, “Glass Menagerie” is another touchstone for “Corsicana,” as Tennessee Williams wrote his 1944 play as a kind of tribute to his sister, Rose, changing her real-life condition, schizophrenia, to a physical disability requiring leg braces.
Williams also, crucially, pitted his play’s three unhappy family members against each other, in a conflict of lofty expectations and crushing reality. Arbery largely avoids such bruising contention, opting instead for oblique dissonance and halting rapprochement.
The play’s best scene may be among its simplest: a thorny argument on a couch between Christopher and Ginny, in which he accuses her of being mean to him and she apologizes. Hugging him, she says, not without love, “You’ve got edge, bro. You’ve got issues.” Arbery’s “Corsicana” has plenty of issues but not much edge.