Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007

“I went to see an all African-American production of The Cherry Orchard with Gloria Foster and James Earl Jones as Lopakhin. I finally got it when [I watched Lopakhin buy] the cherry orchard – it’s the happiest and most devastating moment of his life! It’s so big how he did it, and I started having this sort of epileptic fit in the audience. I was crying and screaming; I was really euphoric because I understood how things could be simultaneously tragic and comic and so alive and so real. After that I understood Chekhov...and I went on to write Crimes of the Heart, which is loosely based on Three Sisters.”
– Beth Henley

I wanted to open with this quotation from the playwright which the WTF has featured in the program for Crimes of the Heart because I think that it provides an important insight into her intent and the structure of the play. I wish that someone had whispered the name “Chekhov” in my ear before I went to see and review Terence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! earlier this season, and so I wanted to be sure to whisper it in your ear here and now, especially since this quote provides such a clear link between his work and this one.

Now if Chekhov conjures up hours of dour Russian angst in your mind, rest assured that, while Beth Henley’s play is clearly Chekhovian in style, she is not Russian. She has taken Chekhov’s lively mix of tragedy and comedy and reinvented it in her own distinctly southern, female voice. This is why Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981, the first play ever to do so prior to its New York production. It is a very good play.

And this is a very good production. Kathleen Turner, in her Williamstown directorial debut, has assembled an outstanding cast and provided them with a structure and space in which to present extraordinarily honest performances.

The play centers on a day in the life of the Magrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Mississippi in the fall of 1974. It is Lenny’s (Jennifer Dundas) 30th birthday and her cousin Chick Boyle (Kali Roche) is giving her a hard time. Lenny, the oldest of the Magrath girls, is unmarried and lives with and cares for her elderly grandfather, who is in the hospital all during the action of the play. Her youngest sister Babe (Lily Rabe) has just been arrested and accused of shooting her husband in the stomach, a crime to which Babe freely admits. The middle sister Meg (Sarah Paulson), who everyone thinks has been on the road with a successful singing career, returns to help Lennie and Babe cope with the crisis.

Babe is also aided by a young lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (Chandler Williams) with an ax to grind against her husband. Meg spends an evening with Doc Porter (Patch Darragh), an old flame who she convinced to ride out Hurricane Camille with her five years earlier, a decision that led to his becoming permanently disabled and abandoning his ambitions to become a doctor.

This is not the first crisis that the sisters have had to face together. Their father abandoned the family and their mother hung herself (and the cat) in the basement. The entire close-knit community considers the Magraths a little odd, and they are right. The Magraths are odd, but in a wonderfully human and endearing manner. Like Chekhov Henley has the ability to create characters you feel you know already, doppelgangers of friends or relatives you deal with all the time.

As I said before, this is a very fine cast, and I am not the only one who thinks so. All three of these actresses have been awarded and nominated for major awards in the film and theatre industries, even 25-year-old Rabe, whose gentle and loopy Babe is a real stand-out here. Yes, she is the daughter of playwright David Rabe, and her mother is actress Jill Clayburgh, so she comes of good stock, but that alone does not account for the presence and talent she displays. From her joyous entrance to the final tableaux Rabe has command of the stage.

Rabe and Paulson have worked together before, in the 2005 off-Broadway production of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. They play well together and they look like sisters. Paulson is cast as the “trashy” sister, the one who found their mother hanged. Her Meg is all nervous energy and unapologetic misbehavior.

I liked Dundas as Lenny, the spinster before her time, but while Paulson and Rabe can pass for sisters, Dundas looks nothing like them. Visually the picture is off, although emotionally the three women connect beautifully. This is always a challenge in casting a show. What happens if the performer best suited to the role looks nothing like the character? Do you cast a lesser performer who looks the part, or do you take a chance on the right actor who looks wrong? Here Turner has opted for the latter, and it was probably the best choice.

Rocha is delightful as cousin Chick, that self-centered nosy snake-in-the-grass who represents all that is false and intrusive about small town life. Williams makes a nice job of the smitten Barnette while Darragh is merely passable as Doc, but Henley’s men hardly matter. This is a chick-play all the way.

The set by Kris Stone was way too big to be believable as the kitchen of a middle-class home in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. The appliances were all much older than the 1974 setting of the play, I suppose because this is grandfather’s house and he just hasn’t updated anything since World War II, but it presented a confusing image. The only thing I liked about the set was the lovely lacey outline of the house against the scrim, symbolizing both the white-glove southern gentility in which the Magraths were raised, and which was rapidly disintegrating by the 1970’s, and the see-through quality of life in any small town.

Christal Weatherly’s costumes remind us just how hideous women’s clothes were back in the day, and how pervasive polyester was. The only character I thought was poorly clothed was Paulson’s Meg. That green mini-dress was just awful, and those should have been Frye boots she broke the heel off of.

There are lots of laughs in this play of family life southern style, but “Crimes of the Heart” is a show that has been around for quite some time – a staple of college, community, and regional theatres – and there is the 1986 film version as well, starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek. What a treat it would have been to see what Turner and her actresses could have done with a newer or less well known work.

Crimes of the Heart runs through August 19 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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