Music

‘Corsicana’ Is a Haunted Play With Some Very Personal Ghosts

One version of Corsicana is a beautiful piece of writing by the playwright Will Arbery—on the page it is a poetic, dense, intriguing pleasure to read. In the program of the play (Playwrights Horizons, to July 10) Arbery—a Pulitzer Play finalist for the magnificent Heroes of the Fourth Turning—says he wrote Corsicana because he has an older sister called Julia who has Down syndrome.

He writes in the program that he has always wanted to create a play about what it was like to be her brother. There are a few differences between play and reality; the fictional siblings Christopher (Will Dagger), 33, and Ginny (American Horror Story’s Jamie Brewer), 34, who have just lost their mother, live in Corsicana, Texas, not Dallas; they’re Protestant (not Catholic, like Will and Julia); and they are half-siblings (not full siblings). There are just two of them, whereas the real Will and Julia have six other siblings.

It is inevitable perhaps that the play’s great strength—its immediate, intensely personal intimacy—becomes a frustrating flaw. Christopher and Ginny may make absolute sense to their creator. He is writing what he knows on so many levels on to the page. But for audiences this intimacy can be a different, more puzzling experience. We do not know Will and Julia, and yet the assumption on the part of the writer is that we know them as intimately as he does.

The second Corsicana unfolding before us is more frustrating and stilted than the printed word. What is beautiful on the page is lost in translation on an airless, almost empty stage with not-great acoustics. There are two other characters, Lot (Harold Surratt), a musician and artist in his 60’s, and Justice (the excellent Deirdre O’Connell, the newly crowned Tony-winning Best Actress for Dana H.), a writer in her 60’s, Lot’s best friend and an honorary aunt to Christopher and Ginny.

These two characters started talking to Arbery “in all sorts of baffling ways” in their conception‚ and unfortunately nobody has edited these baffling communications. O’Connell receives a lovely and deserved—her victory so recent—round of applause when she appears.

Arbery says he spent a month in the real Corsicana in an old building, where he spent much time thinking about ghosts. This is also a play, he says, about an impulse he often feels: the granting then denying of access. And on stage characters open and close themselves to each other in words and actions, with one flank of the stage meaningfully padlocked shut to underscore the theme.

The big themes tumble freely, crashing like boulders in the middle of an open road. In describing the book she is working on, Justice says: “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. And the belief that when a part of the self is given away, is surrendered to the needs of a particular time, in a particular place, then community forms. From the ghosts of the parts of ourselves we’ve given away. A new particular body. Born of our own ghosts. I don’t know. It’s about Texas.”

Arbery says he was thinking about Julia’s dances and stories that happen behind closed doors, what is done in private becoming public. “Does articulating a feeling change the feeling? Is a person still the person they were, once they’re gone?” It is a lovely essay, but somehow not a great play to convey it.

Ginny begins the play by saying that she doesn’t know her heart. People say such big things in Corsicana all the time, and these big things are just kind of lost to the air. Arbery is a lovely writer, but grand soliloquies bloom strangely as acts of theater and rhetoric in Corsicana. The words stand there, and then melt away, undeveloped. The play feels an overlong two and a half hours. The stage is sparsely designed on a turntable, with mirrored banks of couches; characters lurk at the sides when they’re not talking.

Corsicana feels more fluid when it leans into the relationships. Brewer powerfully shows that Ginny doesn’t want to be patronized. She is Christopher’s older sister, yet she feels nannied and patrolled. The play, at its best, illustrates both siblings’ desires for independence, and the various negotiations and capitulations that undermine this when Christopher is Ginny’s primary carer with their mother now gone.

There are random references to Ginny fancying a much younger guy, then a reference to Christopher touching her inappropriately—which is not true, but which he doesn’t really counter either. Does Ginny fancy Lot? Lot gets freaked out, and closes up. This blurring of Ginny’s character is deliberate. Arbery writes, “Julia often gets pigeonholed—either as angelic or pitiable, limited, or blessed. People tend to not consider her depression, desire, manipulation, ambivalence, sexuality.”

This makes absolute sense, and it is admirable and right to create a complex character, but it doesn’t make absolute sense on the stage. However, Brewer is excellent, coloring in Ginny’s mischievous edges. Ginny regales us with Hilary Duff, and her love of Celine Dion, NSYNC, Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, the Dixie Chicks, and Carrie Underwood. Music becomes the theme of the play (Lot prefers a more funereal dirge), and the focus on what song he and Ginny will ultimately create. Christopher hopes that her learning music with Lot will be liberating and cheer her up.

Out of nowhere, Justice has a romantic subplot with Lot. “Well, I think I’m a haunted troll and I think you’re brilliant and I think we’re peas in a pod. You and I. That’s all,” she tells him. He just looks baffled. More silences and gaps. He says, “Sometimes I just can’t tell my place in things,” and this feels like it could go for everyone on stage. Do their names mean something? Justice standing for justice, and Lot, a Biblical character, whose name means to conceal or cover, suffering and enduring?

The play’s standout moments are personal, not big-themed. O’Connell is as exceptional and stage-commanding as anyone who saw in her in Dana H. will recall. Dagger and Brewer capture the love and tough challenges at the heart of their relationship. “The best thing about being a woman with Down syndrome is being smart, and doing lots of special things for people, and helping old people, helping others,” says Ginny. “I’m happy God made me how I am because I have blue eyes. And I am sensitive. My heart is like this dream-wish about things. The best thing about my heart is that I can talk to anybody.”

Lot tells Ginny that the “Styrofoam people” of non-disabled society want and know how to exercise their wants; but people like Lot and Ginny are restricted in what they are allowed to do and feel. “They make us more simple. In their brains… And everything is about our needs. All our little needs. Our special needs. Everyone around us becoming burdened by our constant need. And if there’s something that we want? Well, it’s for them to decide if we really need it.”

Ginny tells Christopher: “I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I need you to help me as a brother who knows about me. Not to give me rules. I know the life that I need to have, and nobody is letting me have that.” Christopher says he feels the same way about his life.

Corsicana is a play that reads beautifully and powerfully, but plays—here at least—in a kind of ponderous purdah, flinching from energy and crackle. At the end, a song is created and performed seemingly uniting all the characters. It has a catchy refrain, and speaks to the play as a whole: “Nobody is ever going to hear this song/Nobody will be allowed to hear this song/Cuz I’m singing it to myself and you can’t hear it.”

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