Fred Weber, a proud son of Mississippi and one very scary bartender, is said to have astoundingly acute peripheral vision. Watching the immensely enjoyable (and equally disturbing) reading of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” which streamed live on Thursday night as part of the New Group Off Stage series, you don’t doubt that Fred — played by a priceless Bill Pullman — can detect whatever’s beside him, behind him or above him.
It’s a gaze that penetrates straight through the screen that separates you from this human reptile. When his eyes narrow, but never quite close, into razor slits, Fred gives the impression that he’s also looking through all the kinks and corners of his own twisted interior.
Does he like what he sees? Surely not. But he can live with it. And though he lies with cavalier smoothness, he is probably the most honest person you’ll meet in the shabby hotel that gives its name to this cockeyed murder mystery, a twisty study of the discontents of living in the racist South in 1964.
As for his starry, first-rate fellow cast members — Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Juliet Brett, who all originated their parts, and Carol Kane, who is reading the role created by the wonderful Glenne Headly, who died in 2017 — they too are frighteningly vital. Each offers a testament to the notion that being trapped in a certain place at a certain moment in history can cause even the freshest soul to rot. They may have scripts in front of them, but they’re not just reading; they’re being, in ways that can feel too close for comfort.
The streaming of staged readings has become a commonplace during the pandemic lockdown. But this benefit production for the New Group (with 10 percent of its proceeds going to the racial justice organization Race Forward), which can be seen through Sunday, almost matches its staged incarnation in its power to disturb.
I had been skeptical about how “The Jacksonian” might translate to the socially distanced format of talking heads in confinement. The 2013 production was drenched in Southern noir — Jim Thompson crossed with Carson McCullers — and shocking visual imagery. This is a work that opens, after all, with a respectably buttoned-down man in a business suit drenched in blood.
Instead, we have an unseen narrator reading stage directions that describe that first, gory sight. The same neutral voice periodically interjects itself to set up the chronologically scrambled scenes, and to explain how the characters touch (and probe, molest and mutilate) one another. There are also annotative still photos from the full-dress show of seven years ago.
The only visible props here are tools for the advancement of forgetfulness and, if possible, loss of consciousness. These include what are said to be Scotch on the rocks, a chloroform-soaked rag, a bottle of morphine and a mask for the administration of nitrous oxide.
It’s no coincidence that Harris’s character, the gentlemanly Bill Perch, is a “dismantled” dentist and hence an expert in anesthesia, a gift he happily shares with the hotel’s maid, Eva White (a loosey-goosey Kane). The people of “The Jacksonian” — rounded out by a superb Madigan as Bill’s estranged, mentally imbalanced wife and a heartbreakingly open-faced Brett as their 16-year-old daughter — sorely need their oblivion.
That leitmotif was apparent when “The Jacksonian” was onstage. But it feels even clearer here. So does the poetic structure engineered by Henley, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner for “Crimes of the Heart,” who had always flirted with Southern gothic but never before plunged as thoroughly into its deepest shadows.
This “Jacksonian” comes close to achieving the ideal function of staged readings: It allows you to contemplate it as literature while still drawing you into an emotional embrace that feels almost tactile. And without the period costuming, the performers deliver X-ray portraits that let you see the skulls, and the fractured minds, beneath the skin.
What’s especially apparent now is how much these people have been warped by a poisoned culture in which lynchings of Black people are commonplace, and the Ku Klux Klan still reigns. All the people here are aspiring to be respectable, civilized, “normal” folks.
It isn’t hypocrisy these characters embody but an unacknowledged disconnect between social delusions and the reality that supports them. They’re all living on top of a swamp, to use another of the play’s recurring images, that always threatens to suck them in.
Does that sound melodramatic? Well, many of our most eminent Southern dramatists, including Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman, have relied on the heightening powers of melodrama to illuminate worlds murky with myths and denial.
That’s what Henley is doing here. And seeing “The Jacksonian” plain, as it were, in this moment of racial explosion, 1964 suddenly doesn’t feel like such a distant time.
Available on demand through August 30; thenewgroup.org.