Sibling rivalry is alive and well at the Women's Theater Company's current production of Beth Henley's comedy, Crimes of the Heart, at the intimate theater in Parsippany. Yes, the three MacGrath sisters may squabble over which one Grampa loved best or why Meg, the middle sister, was allowed to wear 12 jingle bells on her petticoat while the other two were permitted only three, but when tragedy strikes, these feuding, fussing siblings band together to support each other as only family can.
Crimes of the Heart, written by Beth Henley when she was just 29 years old, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, a tip-off that the writing is superb. The dark comedy focuses on the reunion of the three completely different but totally devoted MacGrath sisters in their hometown of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in the late 1970s. Brought together by Babe’s, the youngest sister, shooting of her abusive but rich and powerful husband, each sister confronts that problem, along with her own demons. Lenny, the oldest at thirty and unable to have children, has recently ended a relationship and faces the possibility of never marrying. Meg, the 27-year-old rebellious middle sister, is a wannabe pop singer whose behavior is too scandalous for the conservative community. To make matters worse, the girls have never been really accepted by the close-knit town. Living with their Old Grampa after their father abandoned them and their mother committed suicide, the girls are considered by other relatives in town, like the busybody Chick Boyle, as freeloaders. Babe’s monstrous act brings Meg home from California and Babe home from the jail (and her husband’s house) to Lenny at Old Grampa’s house, where they deal with the problem and find strength in sisterhood to tackle their individual problems. (Above: Babe and Meg surprise Lenny with a birthday cake, one day late)
Barbara Krajkowski's taut direction keeps things humming along at a good clip, if not a bit too quickly for a drama set in Mississippi. For one thing, while the actors all speak with credible Southern drawls, Jacqueline Holloway as Lenny and Carie Ivanovski as the busybody cousin Chick Boyle deliver their lines at a speed more suited to a play set in New York. Indeed, the production clocked in at just under two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Krajkowski has assembled a cast that looks right for the characters' ages. Jacqueline Holloway's long, lean, gawky build is just right for Lenny (right). She's the epitome of low self-esteem, but who wouldn't be after getting stuck taking care of Old Grampa for years while her siblings marry or pursue their own dreams? As Meg, the sister who discovered her mother (and her mother's pet cat) hanging in the basement, Michele Danna (left) is not quite loud and outrageous enough to scandalize Hazelhurst with her behavior. She's best when she finally reveals just where she spent the previous Christmas; we feel her vulnerability. As the baby, Babe (née Rebecca), Elizabeth MacKintosh (center) aptly conveys the character's ditzy personality (she claims to have shot her husband because she "didn't like his face") which, while maddening to the audience, is readily accepted by her sisters.
As Meg's former boyfriend Doc Porter (now wed to a Yankee and the father of two children) Bill C. Edwards’ performance lacks authority (left). And Jason Szamreta (right) as boy lawyer Barnett Lloyd relies so much on impersonating PeeWee Herman that he oversteps the comedic bounds. It's enough that he's enamored of Babe and nurses a personal vendetta against her husband, but using his hand as a puppet and speaking in a high voice were over the top. And Carie Ivanovski as Chick (standing, center), a refugee from Busybodies Anonymous, is a hoot as she puts on pantyhose right before our eyes! When the girls throw her out, it sure is a relief from her constant nitpicking and criticism.
Todd Mills' set conveys the kitchen of a country home quite well, and Frances M. Harrison's costumes are appropriate to the characters—Babe's little girl petticoated shirt dresses, Meg's loud, flowered sundresses and Lenny's long, shapeless shifts worn with a baggy sweater—are perfect.
In Crimes of the Heart Beth Henley takes a depressing situation and turns it into a very funny play. Whatever this production's shortcomings, it's a lovely reminder at this time of year of the importance of family. There are lots of crimes in this play besides Babe's shooting of her husband, but a lack of sisterly love isn't one of them.
Photos by Alex Krajkowski.