Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley’s 1979 southern tragicomedy, is a truly important work of American theatre — both as a historical document of feminist playwriting in the late ’70s and as a work of domestic drama that re-examines the suburban lifestyle and sisterhood after the McCarthy era had been firmly declared dead. None of this importance is on display in Theatreworks’s production, which is aggressively comic to the point of dulling the central honesty at the heart of the work, but Crimes of the Heart has a slick enough surface to work within this context. Even if it’s not the kind of production you’re going to write home about, it makes for a comfortable matinee, perfect for the rainy weather we’ve been having recently in the area.
Set in a Mississippi home, Crimes of the Heart focuses on three sisters: Meg, Babe, and Lenny. Lenny is a plane Jane wallflower just about to turn 30, Meg is a Susan Alexander-style “singer” returning home after a failed career in Los Angeles, and Babe, the youngest, has been arrested and is awaiting trial for shooting her husband in the stomach. Also in the mix is Chick, the sisters’ cousin and nosy and judgmental neighbor, Barnette, the lawyer hired to defend Babe, and Timothy, the old flame of Meg and perpetual crush of Lenny. The play’s action centers around the sisters dealing with Babe’s incident, as well as a grandfather dying in the hospital. While the play maintains a smart-yet-cute humor style on the surface, albeit one that slowly gets darker (ending with a brilliant moment of black humor straight out of Ayckbourn’s magnificently Absurd Person Singular), the play’s heft comes from the portrayal of the three central characters, who are uniquely influenced by Southern culture and second-wave feminism and are totally incompatible as personality types, and yet, somehow continue to find each other the sole source of stability in their terrifying and chaotic lives.
Director Giovanna Sardelli has placed the emphasis on the humor in this production, which mimics the aesthetics of a network multi-camera sitcom almost perfectly. From the diagonal and picture-perfect set (by Andrea Bechert) to the acting of the cast, who telegraph their punchlines so heavily that you keep looking for the electric sign telling the audience to dutifully “LAUGH”, and who layer their southern accents (which sound more Texan than Mississippian) on so thick that you wonder if the director even takes this play seriously. Thankfully Beth Henley’s play maintains a comfortable enough humor that the production works in its own way, even if the sticky relationship drama of the second act ends up marred. Though over-directed, the cast manages to come across as well as they can, with special mention to Lizzie O’Hara, who plays Babe with a quietly simmering rage underneath her adorable exterior that creates a fascinating and complex center on to which the rest of the cast is able to play off of.
Those familiar with the text in advance will doubtless end up disappointed at the lack of depth within this Crimes of the Heart, but it’s hard to imagine disliking this warm and funny performance, which is sure to put you in good spirits for the winter season.