Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 39
 
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
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Music/Theater

LAW AND LOVE: Barnette Lloyd (Marshall Everett), local lawyer pursuing an affection for his client and a vendetta against their opponent, approaches his client Babe MaGrath (Bethy Atkins) in a romantic moment in Beth Henley’s Southern Gothic comedy “Crimes of the Heart” (1979), playing through Saturday, September 27 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

Think You’ve Had a Bad Day? Check Out the MaGrath Sisters; Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” Opens Theatre Intime Season

Donald Gilpin

Have you had a bad day recently? If you want to know just how bad a day can be, meet the MaGrath sisters from Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart (1979), currently playing at Theatre Intime.

Ma MaGrath set the tone a few years back when she gained nationwide attention by hanging herself in the basement, along with the family cat. Now there’s the responsible oldest sister Lenny (Laura Hankin), on her 30th birthday, with a shrunken ovary and a shriveled up love life. Her beloved horse Billy Boy has just been struck by lightning, granddaddy has gone into the hospital with “blood vessels popping in his head,” little sister is in jail, and nobody has remembered Lenny’s birthday.

Then there’s middle sister Meg (Sara-Ashley Bischoff), just home from Hollywood, where her singing career has completely failed. She’s recently been released from a mental institution and ardently continues to follow her penchant for cigarettes, alcohol, and men.

“Crimes of the Heart” will run September 25 to 27, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Order tickets at (609) 258-1742 or www.princeton.edu/utickets. Visit www.theatreintime.org for further information.

And, not to be outdone by her older sisters, 24-year-old Babe (Bethy Atkins) has just shot her husband (“didn’t like his looks”), who caught her having an affair with a fifteen-year-old. She gets out of jail on bail, but fears losing her mind and attempts to follow her mother’s lead by trying to kill herself — first with a noose, then with her head into the oven.

In case you hadn’t guessed, this is the South, Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in the vein of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, with a sprinkling of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic. What you might not have guessed from the description of the three protagonists is that this is a comedy, one of the funniest and finest this country produced in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The Intime undergraduate company, under the direction of Princeton University junior Sophie Gandler, handles this challenging material with energy, style and intelligence, delivering a lively, entertaining performance. The play’s six characters are all eccentric and interesting, and the Intime actors bring them to life with conviction and spirit, skillfully bridging the gaps in age, geography, culture and character.

During the course of the action — just one day and the following morning, the sisters work through painful memories and rediscover their deep family bond. Some inconsistencies in Southern accents and an occasional lapse in credibility early on give way to considerable depth of characterization and strong chemistry in their relationships.

Ms. Hankin, Ms. Bischoff, and Ms. Atkins all develop complex, appealing three-dimensional characters — full of the idiosyncrasies and incongruities in behavior and language that make them interesting and convey the rich humor and humanity in this play.

Stacy Testa as the sharp-tongued, bossy cousin Chick; Stephen Strenio as Meg’s old flame, abandoned by her five years earlier during Hurricane Camille; and Marshall Everett as Babe’s lawyer, with a longstanding affection for his client (she sold him a pound cake at a bazaar once) and a personal vendetta against Babe’s husband, all create sharply defined, memorable supporting characters.

Production values and publicity, which were perhaps rushed by the early opening date, could use an upgrade here. Set design by Megan Thompson presents — rather sparsely and flimsily — the MaGrath kitchen, with lighting by Laura Huchel and costumes by Jackie Bello, Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay, and Margaret White. This hilarious, poignant show deserves a bigger audience than the handful of appreciative supporters in attendance last Saturday night.

Crimes of the Heart received much acclaim in its original 1981 Broadway run, starring Mia Dillon, Mary Beth Hurt, and Lizbeth Mackay. In 1986, it became a successful movie featuring Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, and Diane Keaton, with screenplay by Ms Henley.

Though her most recent play, Ridiculous Fraud, achieved some success in its opening at McCarter Theatre in 2006, Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley’s first play, remains her best, thirty years later. Ms Henley may have exhausted her richest family memories and wildest southern stories in this outrageously comical and loving masterpiece — all the more reason to catch the current Theatre Intime production, especially if you think you’ve had a bad day recently.

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