When Beth Henley finished her play “Crimes of the Heart” in 1978, she sent it to regional theaters — all of which turned it down, many without comment. But at the same time, a friend, completely with Beth’s knowledge, submitted the work to the Best American Play contest, run by Actors Theater of Louisville. It won and was staged there in February of 1979.
Then, of course, all the regional theaters tried to produce it, and by November of 1981 “Crimes of the Heart” had opened on Broadway and played in London and across the U.S.: Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. It also won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Critics Award. Princeton Summer Theater is now offering the work as the second in the summer series.
But it is not an easy piece to stage. The story takes place in a single day in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and revolves around a decidedly dysfunctional family, led by three daughters, Lenny Magrath and her two younger sisters, Meg and Babe. It is from that most rare of genres — a comedy about serious matters. Film critic Roger Ebert said it best: “it exists somewhere between parody and melodrama; between the tragic and the goofy.”
This naturally makes for a difficult play to cast, as well as to stage, but PST director Daniel Rattner has handled the challenges brilliantly, chosen his company of six with obvious care, filled the evening with details that both shock and titillate, and ultimately left us touched.
We meet the Magrath sisters — Maeve Brady as Lenny, the eldest, who is celebrating her 30th birthday on the very day we drop in. She’s alone, as usual, with a small cupcake and a single candle to comfort her. And we meet Meg, the next oldest, who went to Hollywood to pursue a singing career — with everyone’s expectations of stardom, but returning home in defeat. And then the youngest, Babe, who, it seems, has just shot her husband because “I didn’t like his looks.”
We will also meet Doc Porter, Meg’s one-time boyfriend, now married with two kids. And Barnette Lloyd, a young lawyer who is taking on Babe’s defense, perhaps with vengeance in mind. And Chick, apparently a friend of all three girls, but one who might just be something of a villainess. Playwright Henley’s dialogue is crisp, totally Southern, with energetic jumps and twists. And, under Rattner’s direction, this cast never stands or even sits still. Everyone is always grabbing a drink: water, milk, cokes, bourbon — the fridge is used constantly. So are the sink and carving boards.
And there is one character who never appears but casts his spell over the home: granddad lies in a local hospital, close to a coma, but ever present. And the battle between comedy and tragedy is very sharp indeed.
The acting is quite simply some of the finest you will see in many seasons, and you may never pick your favorite. Maeve Brady, as Lenny; Sarah Paton, as Meg, and Holly Linneman, as Babe are completely convincing, both as sisters and as individuals who desperately compete for attention and love. By the second act, you will sit in on one of the very finest scenes in many years as the girls try to keep more or less straight faces even as they break up with the thought of granddad’s coma
Evan Thompson is most effective as Doc Porter. Pat Rounds has a delicious time as the lawyer Barnette and finds wonderful humor in the role. And Annika Bennett hints nicely at jealousy taken to a nasty turn as Chick Boyle. Jeffrey Van Velsor’s practical set design is augmented nicely with suggestions of a second floor, a front entrance and the screen door rear to the garden. Plus, of course, all those kitchen requirements. No minimalist he.
In a program note, director Rattner mentions that 30 years ago when the New York production opened, critic John Simon spoke of” Crimes of the Heart” as a play that “restores one’s faith in our theater.” It should give Mr. Rattner and his company some pleasure to know that this staging does just that.
Crimes of the Heart, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University, Princeton. Continues Thursday to Sunday, July 11 to 14, Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m. $20-$25. 877-238-5596 or www.princeton.edu/~pst.