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A CurtainUp Review
Crimes of the Heart

This is quite a coincidence!. . . Why, it's almost a fluke. For some reason it just struck us as funny.
It's -- it's not funny. It's sad. It's very sad.

— Beth Henley
It's been twenty years since Beth Henley and her Pulitzer-winning play first hit New York, forever changing the tone of dysfunctional Southern family melodramas. In the intervening years, we've been deluged with plays portraying an almost limitless array of maladies and other unpleasantries -- self-inflicted or otherwise. But pound for pound, none hold a candle to Crimes of the Heart for sheer quantity.

Here we have the Magrath sisters, who came, parentless, from Vicksburg to live with their grandparents in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Their mother had hung herself (and the pet cat); their father had already left them. It's not terribly surprising to discover the girls are still suffering the consequences.

It's the eldest daughter's 30th birthday. Lenny (Enid Graham) is on her way to becoming a spinster, constrained, psychologically at least, by a "shrunken ovary" -- she's the one still at home, now taking care of Old Granddaddy, who's in the hospital with "all those blood vessels popping in his brain". Her youngest sister, the dim-witted sugar-holic Babe (Mary Catherine Garrison), just shot her husband in the stomach and is getting bailed out of jail. She doesn't want to explain why it happened to Barnett (Jason Butler Harner), the young, bright if nerdy lawyer they've hired to defend her, who also has a long-standing crush on her. (It turns out her husband, Zach, had been abusing her, but she had also been having an affair with a 15 year old black boy. Barnett, by the by, has his own "personal vendetta" against Zach.)

Lenny has summoned the middle sister, Meg (Amy Ryan), home from California. Meg went there after Hurricane Camille (and after having left her boyfriend, Doc (Talmadge Lowe), who got his leg crushed during the hurricane because Meg insisted on riding out the storm instead of seeking shelter. He now walks with a limp, and is married, neither of which stops Meg from spending the night with him.) She was pursuing her singing career, but that ended when she went nuts and was committed to a mental hospital. (She also drinks a lot.) And let's not forget that Lenny's 20 year old horse, Billy Boy, just died -- he was struck by lightning, or that their presumptuous, judgmental, social-climbing first cousin, Chick (Julia Murney), is in a tizzy because her two kids just ate paint.

If this seems closer to television's Mama's Family or perhaps Greater Tuna than the stuff of Pulitzer's (A Streetcar Named Desire it is not), well, at least superficially it is. (And in this production, quite a bit more than required). Yet the portrait of these goofy if pained small-town characters is quite remarkable, and it well informs the journey they must take to better days. Henley succeeds in keeping the audience in stitches pretty much throughout, using the blackest of humor to illuminate the sisters' struggles, their rivalries and ultimately their bonds. Is it great theater? Perhaps not. But it can't be said it's a bitter pill.

Second Stage has gone to an interesting and unusual place for a director of this production. Garry Hynes is a woman who knows a thing or two about dysfunctional families with a penchant for ugly predicaments, having helmed Martin McDonough's The Beauty Queen of Leenane (review linked below). Her Irish roots might seem far afield from the Mississippi Delta, and they are. Although her directorial instincts sustain her pretty well -- the production moves along smartly -- the play's more eccentric opportunities are over-exploited, to the point that one must give up on the underlying themes and just go with the comic flow.

And flow it does. If the play's heart is (or at least should be) invested in Lenny (Enid Graham does a generally fine job of maintaining Lenny's balance -- showing us her insecurities as well as her essential wackiness, even though she has been directed to telegraph reactions that would better left far more understated), its comic core rests in Babe. In this regard, Mary Catherine Garrison is marvelous, letting Babe's childlike voice ignite Henley's best dialogue without totally losing its plaintive desperate element. Of the three sisters, her star shines brightest. Amy Ryan's Meg is less satisfying -- she seems the least comfortable -- although not unsatisfactory. She does succeed in conveying Meg's status as the family hussy without over-exaggeration. None of the women, it should be noted, enjoy uninterrupted success with their Southern drawl, which comes and goes as often as a Mississippi summer rain.

In Chick, Henley has provided an on-stage villain, and Julia Murney gives us every reason to want to break the fourth wall and wring her neck. She's also very funny. As is Jason Harner, whose Barnett exhibits a forced confidence that belies his evident anxieties. (It's a blend that will certainly bring to mind (to the late night crowd at least) Conan O'Brian at his richest.) Talmadge Lowe evokes in Doc, the only character deprived of much comedic material, just the right down-home sexiness.

Thomas Lynch's well-used kitchen set is detailed and apt, even if a kitchen designer would flip at the distance between the refrigerator, the sink and the stove -- requiring traversal of the entire width of the theater's stage. Susan Hilferty's costumes are just right; she's dressed the Chick like someone's laced-up aunt, which is exactly what's required, and Barnett looks like the quintessential seersuckered Ole Miss lawyer. Rui Rita's lighting is also effective, as is Donald DiNicola's incidental music. (I interviewed DiNicola right as he was commencing rehearsals for this show; that interview is linked below.)

If the sign of a terrific musical is whether the audience leaves the show humming the melodies, perhaps the sign of a winning Southern melodrama can be found in a softening of those harsh Yankee accents on the way out the door. Not a chance.

Review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Interview with Donald Dinicola
Reviews of other Beth Henley plays: Impossible Marriage, Family Week and L-Plays

by Beth Henley
Directed by Garry Hynes
with Enid Graham, Amy Ryan, Missy Yeager, Jason Butler Harner, Julia Murney and Talmadge Lowe
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Rui Rita
Original music and sound design: Donald DiNicola
Running Time: 21/2 hours including one intermission
Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street (@8 Av) Telephone (212) 246-4422
Opening April 16, 2001 closing May 14, 2001
Tues., Thurs. - Sat. @8, Wed. @ 2 and 7, Sat. @ 2, Sun. @3; $35-50. Discounted student rush tickets (limited) are available at the box office 30 minutes before curtain.
Reviewed by Les Gutman
Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide

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At This Theater

Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer.
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