"Crimes of the Heart” was Beth Henley’s first major play to appear on Broadway. It was nominated for a 1981 Tony Award and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Problematic revivals, including one produced by the Roundabout Theater Company three years ago, have made it apparent how essential it is for the company that presents it to see what lurks behind the play’s Dixie-styled gallows humor.

The problems with the production by the McCarter Theater Center begin with the space: the large 1,100-seat Matthews Theater rather than in the 360-seat Berlind Theater where the play would not have been dwarfed by the sheer size of the auditorium. Framing the sprawling kitchen setting that Andromache Chalfant has designed is an outside view of the upstairs and roof of the MaGrath sisters’ house in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. It’s impressive, but it also dwarfs the action within it.

Being able to hear all the words spoken is important. It’s hard to say how much of Henley’s blissfully off-handed dialogue is thrown away. Her characters were conceived so that we can laugh aloud hearing that a horse had been killed by lightning; that a wife has shot her husband because she didn’t like his looks; and at the admission of an impetuous young lawyer that he became “fond,” of his client ever since she sold him a pound cake at a bazaar.

Despite a succession of dark comedies, including “The Wake of Jamie Foster” and “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” Henley’s gift for installing mercurial mayhem into the lives of neurotically defined Southerners apparently ran its course. I’m a fan of her macabre sense of humor and so her plays have remained among my favorites, including her more recent, “Ridiculous Fraud” (seen at McCarter in May, 2006) in which she skewers with relish three Southern brothers: a perfect bookend to “Crimes of the Heart.”

Even stranger than too many words getting swallowed up is that director Liesl Tommy has characters occasionally face front and shout out their lines, an even more distressing solution to the problem. Tommy’s directing credits are impressive (Yale Rep, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse.) Here she has missed getting the payoff from actors who are okay, but clearly not able to plumb either the reality or the ridiculousness of their roles. It may be that Tommy simply doesn’t get the essential wackiness of the characters.

Full appreciation of the character-driven, very dark comedy can only come when those essential elements that make it hilarious are layered onto the elements that define it as horrifying. One member of the cast, Brenda Withers, as the brazenly pushy, gossipy cousin Chick Boyle, however, does rise to the level of empowering outrageousness that this play deserves.

There is some hope early in the play that this ensemble has captured the ferocious personalities that make up the MaGrath sisters’ idiosyncratic household. This occurs as Chick arrives to dispense the latest horrific news about the murder charge leveled against her cousin Babe, all the while pulling up a pair of panty hose with equally determined gusto. Withers, whom McCarter audiences will remember as Helena in Tina Landau’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” captures not only the crassness of her role as an instigating trouble-maker, but also proves to be the best at conveying the unhinged Southern tone that should permeate Henley’s play.

That the play loses its heart and its momentum during the course of its three acts and two hours and forty five minutes is sad. It’s all about a reunion of three Mississippi-bred sisters. As we know, there is no reunion like a Southern family’s reunion. And Henley sparks this odd sisterly gathering with more examples of dysfunctional behavior than you would find in most rehab clinics. If nothing else, it should be fun. It isn’t and why is a puzzler. How could so many deliciously nutty people with so many kooky doings afoot turn out to be so despairingly dull?

Mary Bacon has the role of the dowdy Lenny who is turning 30. She single-handedly maintains the family home and is the sole care-giver to their aging grandfather, now hospitalized. Bacon gives a serviceable performance without much coloration, except when late in the play she discovers that she is no longer going to remain a victim of shrunken ovaries, apparently the cause of her current state of spinsterhood.

Georgia Cohen gives a more enlivening performance as the prodigal Meg, a failed singer. She earns a laugh describing the slicing pains in her chest she always got after reading Lenny’s letters. For all the empathy we might feel for Babe, there is little in Molly Camp’s otherwise manic performance to address this.

Amazingly the two men in the play are even more conspicuously unremarkable. Lucas Van Engen appears and disappears as Doc Porter, Meg’s former beau, and Dustin Ingram appears more frequently to our regret as Barnette Lloyd, Babe’s defense lawyer who is not only infatuated with her but also has a personal vendetta against her husband. The play is set in 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille, and costume designer Marion Williams has got that right. If there is no personal vendetta against “Crimes of the Heart,” why can’t it be done right?

“Crimes of the Heart,” through Sunday, March 27, Matthews Theater at the McCarter Theater Center, 91 University Place. $20 to $85.50. 609-258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.

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