Stage Review: Crimes of the Heart
Everyman’s production lacks originality but is full of heart
Published: January 22, 2014
Crimes of the Heart
By Beth Henley
Directed by Susanna Gellert
Through Feb. 9 at Everyman Theatre
I don’t get it when local theaters stage a play that has already been made into a successful movie. There are thousands upon thousands of great, underappreciated plays that could be featured instead. But of course, the underappreciated plays are exactly that: underappreciated. And as such, they wouldn’t draw the crowds of a Pulitizer Prize-winning play like Crimes of the Heart, which was also an Academy Award-nominated movie starring Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange, and which has already sold out so many nights at Everyman Theatre that its run has been extended through Feb. 9. Not everyone wants to see something new or adventurous, especially not the moneyed, white-haired set which packed the theater a week into Crimes’ run.
So I may not have been the target audience for this production. Nevertheless, Everyman pulled the play off with both subtlety and aplomb, bringing the viewer fully into the world of the play.
Crimes of the Heart is about the relationship between three sisters in Mississippi whose mother killed herself when they were children. The suicide adds a Gothic element to the drama, but the shifting relationships between the sisters are familiar to anyone who has—or who has ever observed—siblings. There is an increasing field of research surrounding the ways that siblings form their identities off of and against one another, and Crimes of the Heart could be used as an illustration of this principle. The stuffy and neurotic Lenny (Beth Hylton) and the flamboyant and reckless Meg (Megan Anderson) are polar opposites, always at one another’s throats, each defining herself against the other, while Babe (Dorea Schmidt) seems to struggle with her own identity in the space between these two.
Of course, Babe is the only reason that Meg has come back to town from California, where she is supposed to be pursuing a music career but where, we learn, she has been battling mental illness. And Babe isn’t exactly sane: She shot her husband, a state senator, in the stomach, and for much of the play, the only reason she gives is that she didn’t like his looks. When he threatens via phone from his hospital bed to have her committed, she tries to commit suicide, like her mother.
This is all pretty dark stuff, but Crimes succeeds by playing it lightly, creating a kind of graveyard humor from the sisters’ troubles so that even a head in the oven can draw some laughs. All three of the lead actresses kill their roles, bringing out both the humor and the pathos of their characters. Schmidt is especially good as Babe as she vacillates between fear and bravado and between her two sisters with a vivaciousness and wounded grace. Anderson perfectly captures the sly vulnerability beneath Meg’s over-the-top surface, just as Hylton captures the subtle bravado beneath Lenny’s put-upon and shy mousiness. Hylton’s facial expressions as she tries to light a birthday candle for herself could almost carry an entire play, so filled are they with nuance and a lifetime’s worth of emotion. None of the characters become caricatures, thanks in part to Henley’s superb script, but also thanks to the skill of the three leads.
Ashley Smith, the dialect coach, also deserves a great deal of credit. I worried that everything would fall to hell because of terrible fake Southern accents when Katy Carkuff, who plays the cousin, Chick, came out and started talking. Her accent was really too much, but then again, so is her character. She is supposed to be overly put-on and stuffy, and they may have decided to over-accentuate her accent, because Anderson, Hylton, and Schmidt all sound like Southerners you might really know, not corn-pone Gone with the Wind wannabes. The same goes for Danny Gavigan, who carries as much meaning in his shoulders as Hylton does in her face: He moves with exactly the right kind of wounded blue-collar grace that people think they hear in Springsteen songs. Jamie Smithson, as the nerdy but effective young Southern lawyer with a lifelong vendetta against Babe’s husband, is slightly less effective but still solid and often quite funny. But one of the things about this play is that the men are really little more than props. This is a play about women and the relationships that matter are between the sisters.
And the kitchen. Because everybody knows that a relationship between three sisters, in the South, especially in the early 1970s, is going to happen in the kitchen, and Debra Booth got it just right with her set.
So, yeah, maybe you could stay home and watch three supremely great actresses in these roles on video, but you would miss the very real sense of human connection that is at the heart of this play.
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