Crimes of the Heart
by Beth Henley Directed by Betsy Willis
Reviewed by Wayne Erreca (1-18-15)
Crimes of the Heart almost found itself in the dustpan of history, had it not received a stroke of good luck. Playwright Beth Henley had a completed script of it in 1978 and submitted it to three regional theatres. Unfortunately, each of them rejected her offer. Unbeknownst to her, a determined friend of hers submitted it to the Great American Play Contest, being held at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. To Henley’s surprise it was elected co-winner! Shortly thereafter, it was produced in 1979 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville Festival of New American Plays. After its successful showing, various regional theatres scheduled it within their 1979-1980 seasons. Eventually, in 1980, it was in the lights of New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, where it had 32 sold-out performances. On November 4, 1981, it was still picking up of steam, opening at the John Golden Theatre for a 535 performance run, leading it on into winning two prestigious theatre awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Best American Play from the New York Critics Circle. Then, in 1986, it received its crowning honor of being produced into a motion picture starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. After such an amazing success, it makes one wonder if her dear friend, to this very day, is receiving royalty residuals?
Crimes of the Heart is listed as a black comedy or Southern Gothic genre. Henley was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She centers her play in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1974, where three sisters, Lenny McGrath (Esme’ Bloomquist), Meg McGrath (Ella Bole), and Babe McGrath (Carly Anderson) unite at their grandfather’s house, while he is receiving medical assistance at the local hospital. Each of the three sisters has peculiar backgrounds as a result of their dysfunctional family upbringing. Their father abandoned them while they were young and their mother committed suicide by hanging herself, along with her cat. Lenny (Bloomquist) is the oldest of the three, turning thirty years old, and as the stage lights rise, she’s lighting a single candle placed in the center of a cookie, and sings the birthday song to herself. She’s introverted, single, and borderline spinster, and quite meekly in nature. Meg (Bole) is vivacious, bombastic, and manically romantic. She arrived from Los Angeles where she was pursuing a singing career and also spent time within a mental hospital. The youngest of the three sisters is Babe (Anderson) who is out on bail after recently shooting her abusive husband in the stomach. She has a subdued character that harbors an adolescent innocence. Having now newly reunited, memories of old, and recent tragic events surround them, come forth, bringing laughter and tears, heartache and joy, and glimpses of new beginnings for each of them.
Their cousin Chick Boyle (Jeanette Hagberg) pops in from, time to time, with juicy bits of gossip, and Doc Porter (Matt Marek), Meg’s old flame before her venturing off to California, comes by to rekindle unresolved business between them, while Barnette Lloyd (Mitch McDonald), Babe’s legal attorney stops in to advise, and to hopefully spark affection from her.
Crimes of the Heart is a fabulously written play, mixing comedy and drama together, where they easily blend, without obstructing one another. Henley’s dialogue is bright, amusing, and often sadly weighted on ones emotions. This is the delicate trick every director and actor in this kind of dynamic play must adhere too. To alter too far off from the drama or the comedy at the precise moments throughout the play can tip the overall balance. Usually, in this kind of production, drama should come first, and comedy second, as a necessary comic relief. Where the danger lies is wrongly choosing to put comedy first over drama. In doing so, it diminishes, and greatly dilutes the power, and emotion drama brings to the play. Many years ago, I went to see a good friend performing in Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady. This is one of his first attempts at drama. After the show I met up with my friend and was asked how I liked it. I gave her an honest answer and to this day she hasn’t spoken a word to me since. What did I say? Well, I told her the director must have directed the play as a comedy, since Neil Simon wrote it, but was sadly misinformed, for it was supposed to be more dramatic, with comedic moments in-between.
Bloomquist (Lenny) does a fine portrayal of a meek and lonely person, who lacks self-esteem, and purpose. I would encourage her though, to open her eyes, and let the audience see inside the sorrow she bares within. Overall, her Lenny is a fine performance. Bole (Meg) from the very start was overly presentational; projecting far too many comedic gestures throughout when not required. For when the dramatic moments arrived they were stunted and masked over, never truly reaching the necessary depths. Bole is a talented and energetic actress, with a history of fine works, but in this role, for whatever reasons, her prior decisions should be reconsidered. Anderson (Babe) was marvelous in her multi-level role of Babe. She physically, audibly, and emotionally tapped into her soul, giving an amazing tour d’ force performance. Hagberg (Chick) did a whole lot with a small role. With great energy and understanding she brightened each moment she was on stage. Marek (Doc), although having the fewest lines in the play, presented himself well, but the scenes with Meg, for reasons already posted, should have had more intimacy between them. McDonald (Barnette) looks like an attorney, talks like an attorney, (and may, for all I know, be an attorney). Regardless of his occupation, he did a wonderful job on stage with his scenes with Babe. There was true chemistry between them and a joy to watch. A suggestion to the whole cast; most of the southern accents were passable, but for those who are struggling should tend to it. In over stretching the pronunciation of every syllable or word is only adding more unnecessary minutes to the length of the play. Bravo to each of you for bringing this marvelous production to the Old Town Playhouse stage. It’s not an easy one, but you’ve done a fine job!
Director Betsy Willis, Asst. Director/Stage Manager Denni Don Hunting, and Co-Producers Cris Boyer & Clover Roy assembled a talented cast of players and creative staff. Upon entering the theatre, you’re overwhelmed by the beautiful and fully functional kitchen setting, designed by Matt McCormick. It’s definitely one of the very best the Old Town Playhouse has constructed over the last ten years. Also, quite impressive is the set finishing by Lori Wheldon, Jenn Archibald, Karla Fishburn, Clare Shipstead, Jeanette Mason, and Diane Hubert. And without Jeff Kroeger, Kerr Anderson, and crew, the set construction would be completely amiss. Costumes were fashionably well done; capturing the 1970’s era by Kathy Verstraete and Allyce Amindon. Hair & Make-up caught the right style of the times by Liz Reincke Arbut. Lights by Bryant Bancroft fused the mood along with Sound by Gary Bolton.
I love a great dramedy! Crimes of the Heart is a worthy play to see. Who knows, it might remind you of your own crazy family. It sure does to me, bringing a smile to my face, and a laugh or two. The three McGrath sisters are real people; not perfect or saintly, but honest, of flesh, and blood. Life isn’t totally tidy, but has its share of dirty laundry. Jump into the McGrath kitchen and see their slice of life; they may even give you a slice of Lenny’s birthday cake.