Back in 2006, when the McCarter Theater produced the Beth Henley comic drama “Ridiculous Fraud,” about three southern brothers and their dysfunctional family trials, dramaturg Janice Paran described that family portrait as “something most of us identify with, if we scratch the surface of our own family histories.”
So, it isn’t very surprising, although it’s really amazing, that South African director Liesl Tommy relates so strongly to Henley’s play “Crimes of the Heart,” which she is currently directing at the McCarter. “Crimes of the Heart,” written in 1978 and winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, follows the wild tribulations of three sisters in what has been described as a Southern Gothic screwball comedy. How many of us can laugh when tribulations pile up? In Henley’s world, however, the tribulations are more outlandish than any of us can dredge up in our lives. Maybe it’s something about the South.
“Crimes of the Heart” goes into previews on Tuesday, March 8, and opens on Friday, March 11.
When Tommy immigrated to the United States from South Africa in the 1980s, she and her mother went to a play, their first in this country. It was “Crimes of the Heart.” As we talked by phone during a rehearsal break, she explains how they “fell in love” with the play. “We had never been to the American South, but it seemed so familiar: the warmth and the daffiness and the quirkiness, and the fighting and the reconciliation. All of those things made us terribly homesick, but we also found comfort in it.”
Tommy had grown up in South Africa surrounded by a large extended family. Her mother, like the Henley characters, was one of three sisters. “That kind of female energy was a big part of my upbringing,” says Tommy. When the movie was released on video, they bought a copy and would watch it together “on Sunday afternoons when we were particularly homesick,” Tommy says. “There’s something very African about laughing through the tears. I find it so human.” This universal resonance I’m sure contributes to the continued popularity of this play.
McCarter publicist Dan Bauer tells me that it is a favorite of artistic director Emily Mann. She calls the play “Henley’s most famous, most outrageous, and most calamitously funny play — now an American classic.”
Tommy admits that she and the actresses playing the three sisters are too young to have seen the original production, but they are enjoying the 1970s setting, especially the costumes and hair styles, not dissimilar to what the “with it” women are wearing today. “We’re kind of having a ’70s revival in fashion right now. There’s really something funny about this period feeling very ‘now.’”
She tells me that the young actresses (whom she cast near the ages of the characters as Henley wrote them) arrived at rehearsal, not only with considerable comic talents, but also with appropriate hair cuts and clothes. On a more serious note, she finds that the play’s depiction of a woman’s place in society is still a today thing. “Men are still dictating to some women in some parts of the world, including small-town America, that feeling of necessary sacrifice — women feeling that their whole life is about other people, their husband and children.”
Certainly, Tommy’s interest in women’s concerns gave depth to her direction of Lynn Nottage’s gripping play “Ruined,” which chronicled the experience of a group of women survivors during the real life horror story of the civil war that spread from Rwanda to the Congo. She directed “Ruined” last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and more recently at both the La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Repertory Theater in California, as well as on the East coast at Boston University.
When I ask Tommy if she anticipates directing more of Nottage’s work, after an extended laugh, she replies emphatically, “Yes.” This seems to imply that perhaps something is already in the planning stages.
Tommy had already gained a reputation for developing and directing new plays about topical current events. Beginning with a staged reading in 2006 at the Public Theater in Manhattan, she led the journey of “The Good Negro” by Tracey Scott Wilson, culminating in productions at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and the Public Theater. This play gave her a very different look at the American South as it follows three emerging black leaders during the 1960s civil rights movement.
Her career as a director has moved along speedily. Just before coming to the McCarter, she directed a production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” at Yale, having to commute for one week to Boston for the final work on her production of “Ruined.”
All during the time I talk with Tommy, she often laughs. Even on the telephone, she comes across as a warm and friendly person. After her stint at McCarter, she is off to Denmark to continue development of a play that deals with xenophobia and racism in Denmark. “Actually these are issues in all of northern Europe. There are so many people, many from Africa, immigrating into areas of Europe, places that are very homogenous like Denmark. And it has really shaken how they feel about their country and about themselves.”
How did this dynamic for theater begin? What gave her this impressive drive? With this question, she laughs heartedly and says, “I think it came from parental disapproval.” She tells me that her parents were very political and, like most immigrants, they were anxious for their children to have a better life than the one they had come from. “The thought of theater, especially acting, was unacceptable.” Their idea of an option for their children was to be a lawyer or doctor, certainly not a starving artist. “They were so opposed and so terrified for me that I thought, if I’m going to do this, I have to really, really do it.” Her father had always said to her, “You’re a woman, and you’re black. You have to be five times better than everyone around you because you’re going to be judged on a different level.” Since he said this to her many times, she believed it and internalized the message. “I pushed myself. In anything I did, I tried to be the best that I could be.”
When Nelson Mandela was elected President of the African National Congress, her parents moved back to South Africa where her father is a city planner; her mom, an accountant.
When she was a child in Cape Town, South Africa, she took dance lessons every Saturday morning at the community center. “There was always a lot of singing going on in my house,” she says. This combination inspired her to put on shows with her cousins and neighborhood children. “They would sing songs, and I would choreograph them.” With much laughter she adds, “There was a lot of forced labor.” As for theater, “It seemed so naturally organic, I never can remember wanting to do anything else.”
Her father had an extensive library and young Tommy took full advantage of it. She remembers reading “The Glass Menagerie” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” when she was about eight years old and commandeering her brother, Kurt, to perform scenes with her. “There were two very dramatic scenes, one in ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ where Tom and Amanda are screaming at each other and another confrontational scene from ‘Virginia Woolf.’ We would just yell at each other; it was very dramatic and a lot of fun.”
Then she adds, “Without realizing it, my father was the one who influenced me with all of the books we had around the house, a lot from the western theater canon. I actually have a secret belief that my dad would have made a great actor.” Her brother didn’t follow up with the theatrics, but followed in his father’s footsteps. He works for the housing authority in the Boston area, helping low income families.
After high school in Massachusetts, she attended a conservatory in London, training as an actress. Returning to Boston, she worked for several years as an actress and also as a social worker in the inner city. “I was doing well in the Boston area, but I thought, if I want to be in the bigger houses, I need more training.” So she went to graduate school at Trinity Repertory Company, which has a program in connection with Brown University.
‘The directors of the program were terribly supportive, thought I had abilities as a director, and made sure that I had opportunities to direct every year,” she says. “I was there for the certificate program; I wasn’t really interested in the academic work.” She was not working for a degree, just knowledge and experience, which really paid off. “I was extremely committed. I’d watch rehearsals even if I wasn’t involved in that particular production. I absorbed a tremendous amount.”
When she’s not traveling, home for her now is Brooklyn. I can almost see her hand over her heart when she says “Brooklyn.” But, for now, she’s in residence in Princeton and enjoying the town, even snow covered. Soon she’ll be off to Denmark. “I always wanted to travel. And it’s wonderful that I can do it with my work.”
“Crimes of the Heart,” Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Tuesday through Thursday, March 8 to 10, 7:30 p.m.; opening night, Friday, March 11, 8 p.m. Beth Henley’s dark comedy about three eccentric sisters, a husband who’s been shot, a lawyer with a vendetta, and a 30th birthday. Through Sunday, March 27. $20 to $60. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.