“Corsicana” is a haunted play with some very personal ghosts

A version of corsica is a beautiful text by playwright Will Arbery – on the page it is a poetic, dense, fascinating pleasure to read. Featured in the play (Playwrights Horizons, through July 10) Arbery—a Pulitzer Play Finalist for the grandiose Heroes of the Fourth Turn– says he wrote corsica because he has an older sister named Julia who has Down Syndrome.

He writes on the show that he’s always wanted to do a play about being her brother. There are a few differences between game and reality; fictional siblings Christopher (Will Dagger), 33, and Ginny (American Horror Story‘s Jamie Brewer), 34, who just lost their mother, live in Corsicana, Texas, not Dallas; they are Protestant (not Catholic, like Will and Julia); and they are half siblings (not full siblings). There are only two of them, while the real Will and Julia have six other siblings.

It is perhaps inevitable that the play’s great strength – its immediate, intensely personal intimacy – becomes a frustrating failure. Christopher and Ginny may make perfect sense to their creator. He writes what he knows on the page on so many levels. But for the audience, that intimacy can be a different, more confusing experience. We don’t know Will and Julia, and yet the author assumes we know them as well as he does.

The second corsica What unfolds before us is more frustrating and stilted than the printed word. What is beautiful on the page is lost in translation on a vacuum, almost empty stage with not-so-great acoustics. There are two other characters, Lot (Harold Surratt), a musician and artist in his sixties, and Justice (the excellent Deirdre O’Connell, the recent Tony Award-winning Best Actress for dana h), a writer in her sixties, Lot’s best friend and honorary aunt to Christopher and Ginny.

These two characters began speaking to Arbery “in all sorts of confusing ways” in their conception, and unfortunately no one has edited those confusing communications. O’Connell gets a nice and well-deserved round of applause when she appears.

Arbery says he spent a month in the real Corsicana in an old building where he spent a lot of time thinking about ghosts. This is also a piece, he says, about an impulse he often feels: allowing and then denying access. And on stage, the characters open and close to each other in word and deed, one flank of the stage being meaningfully padlocked to emphasize the theme.

The big themes tumble free, crashing like boulders in the middle of an open road. 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 self is given away, accommodating the needs of a specific time in a specific place, then community is formed. From the spirits of the parts of ourselves that we have given away. A new special body. Born of our own spirits. I do not know. It’s about Texas.”

Arbery says he’s been thinking about Juliet’s dances and stories that happen behind closed doors, what’s done in private becomes public. “Does articulating a feeling change the feeling? Is a person still the person they were when they’re gone?” It’s a nice essay, but somehow not a great game to convey it.

Ginny begins the play by saying she doesn’t know her heart. People say such big things in corsica all the time, and these great things are just lost in the air. Arbery is an endearing writer, but great soliloquies oddly blossom as acts of theatrics and rhetoric corsica. The words stand there and then melt away, undeveloped. The piece feels like an overlong two and a half hours. The stage is sparsely designed on a turntable, with mirrored banquettes; Characters lurk on the sides when not speaking.

corsica feels more fluid as it leans into relationships. Brewer shows impressively that Ginny does not want to be patronized. She is Christopher’s older sister, but feels protected and watched over. The play shows at its best both siblings’ desire for independence and the various negotiations and surrenders that undermine that with Christopher being Ginny’s primary caregiver now that her mother is gone.

There are incidental hints that Ginny is into a much younger man, then a hint that Christopher is touching her inappropriately – which isn’t true, but he doesn’t really disagree either. Is Ginny on the ball? Lot freaks out and closes. This blurring of Ginny’s character is intentional. Arbery writes, “Juliet is often pigeonholed—either as angelic or pathetic, limited or blessed. People tend not to consider their depression, desire, manipulation, ambivalence, and sexuality.”

That makes perfect sense, and creating a complex character is admirable and right, but on stage it doesn’t make perfect sense. However, Brewer is excellent, inking in Ginny’s mischievous edges. Ginny entertains us with Hilary Duff and her love for 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 dirge), and the focus is on what song he and Ginny will ultimately create. Christopher hopes her music lessons with Lot will free and cheer her up.

Out of nowhere, Justice has a romantic subplot with Lot. “Well, I think I’m a troll haunted and I think you’re brilliant and I think we’re peas in a pod. You and me. That’s all,” she tells him. He just looks amazed. More silence and gaps. He says, “Sometimes I just can’t assess my place in things,” and that feels like it could apply to everyone on stage. Do their names mean anything? Justice standing for righteousness, and Lot, a biblical character whose name means to hide or to cover, to suffer and endure?

The standout moments of the play are personal and have no grand themes. O’Connell is as extraordinary and powerful as anyone who has seen her dana h will remember. 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, helping old people and helping others,” says Ginny. “I’m glad God made me the way I am because I have blue eyes. And I’m sensitive. My heart is like this pipe dream about things. The best thing about my heart is that I can talk to anyone.”

Lot tells Ginny that the “styrofoam people” of able-bodied society want and know how to get their wishes met; but people like Lot and Ginny are limited in what they can do and feel. “They make us easier. In their brains… And it’s all about our needs. All our little needs. Our special needs. Everyone around us is weighed down by our constant need. And if there’s something we want? Well, it’s up to them to decide if we really need it.”

Ginny says to Christopher, “You don’t have to tell me what to do. I need your help as a brother who knows about me. Not to give me rules. I know the life I have to have and no one will let me have it.” Christopher says he feels the same way about his life.

corsica is a piece that reads beautifully and powerfully, but – here at least – plays in a sort of ponderous purdah that shies away from energy and crackle. In the end, a song is created that seems to unite all the characters. It has a catchy chorus and addresses the piece as a whole: “Nobody will ever hear this song/Nobody gets to hear this song/Because I’m singing it to myself and you can’t hear it. ” “Corsicana” is a haunted play with some very personal ghosts


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