Southern Gothic Meets Chekhov With an Ample Dose of Warm Humor In Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” at Princeton Summer Theater
“But, Babe, you’ve just got to talk to someone about all this,” Meg urges her younger sister in Princeton Summer Theater’s (PST) production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1979). “You just do …. Because it’s a human need. To talk about our lives. It’s an important human need.”
That human need to communicate with others, to talk about our lives, to share our stories, to relive with others the joys and sorrows of our human existence — is not only essential to our humanity. It’s the primary impulse for creating theater, from its roots in ancient Greece to the present, and a pervasive central theme of this tragic comedy.
Crimes of the Heart is the story of one “really bad day” in the lives of the three MaGrath sisters in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in the fall of 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille, and there is enough tragic material here — many different “crimes of the heart,” loves lost and loves abandoned, Granddaddy suffering a stroke, beloved horse struck by lightning, mental disorders, a suicide and other subsequent suicide attempts, domestic abuse, and murder attempts — to overload a classic tragedy. But this play is very funny, in its particularly, darkly humorous way. This masterpiece, which may have exhausted most of Ms. Henley’s best ideas and wildest family stories, is one of the best loved, most frequently produced plays of the last half of the 20th century,
The reunion and bonding of the three sisters, ages 30, 27, and 24, seems to make life bearable, even hopeful, even funny, despite all its distressing calamities. The soul of this play lies somewhere in that powerful sisterhood, that strength of family, that shared past, that opportunity to sit down together and “talk about our lives” with listeners who understand and, in spite of everything, love unconditionally.
The talented, energetic, young PST company is up to the challenges of Crimes of the Heart, making this show a definite crowd-pleaser for enthusiastic summer audiences. Under the direction of Daniel Rattner, last summer’s PST artistic director and recent Princeton University graduate, the cast interacts as a finely tuned ensemble.
As the play opens, it’s oldest sister Lenny MaGrath’s 30th birthday, and she’s trying hard, all by herself, to celebrate with a single candle that won’t exactly stand up on top of the cookie she just bought. Her ovary is deformed, her love life is empty, her grandfather is dying, and her beloved horse has just been struck by lightning. Both parents are long gone. Father left town and mother committed a murder-suicide in the basement, along with the family cat. Lenny’s two sisters have further disgraced the family — Meg with her loose behavior before she headed west to seek fame as a singer in Hollywood, and Babe (who was having an affair with a 15-year-old) for shooting her husband because she “didn’t like his looks.”
The plot may sound more tragic than comedic, but the tone remains light and the dark humor is rich, as Meg, career in shambles, and Babe, out of jail on bail pending trial, return home and the three sisters confront their daunting predicaments.
The three sisters, played by Maeve Brady, Sarah Paton, and Holly Linneman, come to life in lovingly detailed, idiosyncratic, three-dimensional portrayals. The three supporting characters, meddling cousin Chick (Annika Bennett), Meg’s old boyfriend Doc (Evan Thompson), and the eager young lawyer (Pat Rounds), are less fully developed but definitely striking and larger-than-life in their eccentric, memorable characterizations.
The pace is swift, and the drama and humor are absorbing. You might not have ever met anyone quite like these characters, but it is impossible not to care about their odd, troubled lives, and peculiar relationships.
This PST production company is on a roll with this second of four productions in a six-week period. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s unit set presenting Granddaddy’s kitchen, Alex Mannix’s realistic lighting, and Ms. Bennett’s 1970s costumes are all realistic and on target in creating the world of lower middle class, small-town Mississippi in 1974.
In addition to talent, abundant and diverse experience in both academic and professional theater, intelligence and imagination, this company benefits greatly from their close, continuing working relationships and also from the fact that all the ages of the characters in this play are within ten years of the actors playing the roles. The performances, outlandish as some of these characters and their actions might be, are thoroughly credible. The PST actors understand these characters. Their portrayals exude sympathetic appreciation, and the chemistry is powerful among the sisters and between each of them and the other characters in the play — exciting and gratifying to watch.
Originally produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, Crimes of the Heart opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, then moved to Broadway where it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play. In 1986 Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek starred in a popular movie version with screenplay by Ms. Henley. Now this first-rate Princeton Summer Theater revival happily demonstrates, with moving warmth and humor, that the passions of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and the resulting “crimes of the heart,” as well as the need to share the stories of our lives, have a timeless relevance, interest, and appeal.