Theater Review: Charlotte’s Theatre Crimes of the Heart
By Perry Tannenbaum
It’s been a long time – nearly 15 years as far as I can tell – since I’ve spent an evening with Beth Henley’s lovable Mississippi Magrath Sisters. Looking in on them at Theatre Charlotte’s revival of CRIMES OF THE HEART affirms how vividly these deftly differentiated sibs stick in a theatergoer’s memory. First and foremost, you’ll remember kooky Babe, who doubts her own sanity after shooting her husband. Carefree temptress Meg seems to be the enviable paragon, looking down on her sibs as she waltzes back to the home sod with her Left Coast cool, but she’s beginning to doubt her own specialness now that her stab at stardom has come up empty. Lastly, that dear and dutiful doormat, Lenny, with her shriveled ovary and low self-esteem.
If the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner is beginning to show its age, I couldn’t tell it by the audience reaction at the Queens Road barn. The quirkiness and the comedy still work, but at a distance of 35 years, we can begin to appreciate what made CRIMES OF THE HEART so unique when it burst upon the scene.
Prize-winning plays and novels set in Dixie had invariably been about elegant, decayed, and tragic folk, following the Southern archetypes embraced by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee. Henley showed us once and for all that the eccentricities celebrated in You Can’t Take It With You could play just as well down in Mississippi – even when peppered with dark Arsenic and Old Lace humor.
Yet Henley’s comedy is notably more realistic than Kaufman’s crowdpleaser and both lighter and saner than Arsenic. That’s because the Magrath sisters are quirky rather than balmy – and because no significant antagonist appears onstage. When Cousin Chick drops by to chide or alarm the sisters, she is more of an irritant than an antagonist, her exits usually comical hasty retreats. She’s more like the recurring meanie from a TV sitcom than a force to reckoned with. The only real threat is State Senator Zachery Bottrelle, convalescing offstage somewhere with the bullet hole in his gut that Babe put there.
The Magrath Sisters came equipped with leavening agents that had usually been absent from American comedies: sorrows and regrets. You could easily presume that these were Southern heirlooms from Williams’ iconic dramas, but I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that this quality in Henley’s heroines may have had its roots in the novels of Jane Austen. Like Gentle Jane, Henley doesn’t presume to show us how men speak to each other when ladies aren’t in the room.
Directing for the first time at Theatre Charlotte, Christian Casper isn’t trying to reimagine our leading characters. Nor is set designer Chris Timmons trying to depict the Hazelhurst, Missisippi, home as any more luxurious or squalid than you might expect. We’re in a bland, slightly cheesy smalltown home, and its only discordant element is the dwarf fridge in the kitchen.
One of the ways that Henley binds her comedy together and makes it memorable is with the pair of ceremonies framing the action in celebration of Lenny’s 30th birthday. As you’ll see in the final moments, budgetary constraints are a bit more exposed than strictly necessary – cakewise and candlewise. But if Casper isn’t sufficiently savvy about the technical strategies to make the final scene truly shine, he certainly doesn’t mess up the opening.
Lenny’s clandestine celebrations get us off to a charming start with Meredith Westbrooks Owen as the pitiful birthday girl, repeatedly hunched over her wee little cupcake, singing to herself. Comedy – and the big news about the crime – burst in with Zendyn Duellman feasting on the role of Chick. Catty, gossipy, and fault-finding don’t completely describe Chick, for she’s also vulgar and trashy, richly deserving the Magraths’ scorn. Picking up a pair of pantyhose that Lenny has obligingly bought for her at the store, Chick begins squirming into them before our very eyes.
Henley meant Chick’s struggles to appear “slightly grotesque” in her stage directions, but Casper has Duellman going way beyond that. Like Lenny, we don’t care whether Chick remembers her cousin’s landmark birthday or not, but the same lapses from her younger sisters clearly hurt. Lenny’s clandestine candle-lighting lingers as an subliminal rebuke, underscoring her siblings’ tendency to be insensitive, neglectful, and self-absorbed. Beyond that, they expect Lenny to perform all the family’s mop-up chores, chiefly the onerous task of caring for bedridden Old Granddaddy.
From the moment that Jennifer Barnette enters as Meg, there are conflicting airs about her of regality and rebelliousness, elegance and uncouth. One minute, she’s lighting up a cigarette to vex Chick, the next she’s disconcerting Lenny by cracking pecans with her shoe. What a fascinating character arc for Barnette as she careens from Coca-Cola and stolen candy crèmes to bourbon and birthday cake. But of course, Barnette’s physical comedy – or even Chick’s, for that matter – will pale in comparison to Babe’s prodigies.
Emily Klingman performed them on opening night with a neurotic edge that eventually won me over. She repeatedly convinces us that Babe is the youngest, most immature person onstage, quite capable of obsessing morbidly over why her mom killed the family cat when she committed suicide. And hey, when a kitchen oven and a chandelier are among your props, you will get laughs.
Self-sacrifice is enough to win our affection for Lenny, but Henley calls upon two good men to help in sealing our fondness for her more self-centered sibs. Allen Eby is Doc Porter, surprisingly mellow for a man whom Meg left drenched and limping after a spectacular breakup during Hurricane Camille. On the other hand, Cole Long as dorky Barnette Lloyd, the legal eagle who is trying to keep Babe out of jail, seems uncannily capable of homing in on his client’s ditzy wavelength.