Crimes of the Heart

It is like Chekhov’s Three Sisters if they were in 1981 Mississippi with southern twangs and a few less soldiers.  Otherwise this quirky trio of mismatched personalities mirrors the classic tale fairly well with a matronly sister, a wild and reckless prodigal sister, and one who is looking for change in any form offered- even the arms of a (much) younger man.  There are some warm hearted feel good moments to the play, but also some rather troubling issues that seem unresolved in the end. The play did win the 1981 Pulitzer and has been revived several times throughout the last few decades.

Lenny (Lenora) Mcgrath is the dowdy stay put sister, who has remained in the family’s homestead to hold down the fort and care for their aging grandfather in his nursing home.  Meg is the star struck sister who went away to California in hopes of stardom, but has been handed a plate of disappointment instead.  They are all gathered at home because the youngest sister, Babe (Rebecca) has just shot her husband and has been released on bond and must assemble for her trial.  The three sisters are all very different and do not see eye to eye on pretty much any point brought up.  Chick is their cousin, a lady of leisure and lunch at the social club, who stops by to mostly nitpick what these Mcgrath sisters are doing.  We find out that the mother passed, and the grandfather raised them all in this home.  With his health failing, and Babe’s trial impending, life looks complicated for these sisters.

The glue holding them all together is Lenny, Holly Gibbs.  Who does a tremendous job of being anxious, drab, and deliberate.  She makes no mistakes, takes no risks, and just wants everyone to sit at the table and be well.  Her attire, her hand gestures, her nervous ticks are all tells that she has dedicated her life to this family.  Gibbs is a natural at acting, so watching her tackle this role is like a very perfectly choreographed dance.  She fits a little too well into this mold.  Meg Magrath is Valerie Dowdle.  Her stature, demeanor, constant smoking, and wild lies about her life set her vehemently apart from her other two sisters.  She seems to be chasing waterfalls that are destined to always be out of reach.  She wants more, but really has some hurdles to overcome.  Two of her best moments are with Doc, Gabe Fremuth, as they relive their past and go out for a night on the town to reminisce; and her breakdown moment where she admits her own mental illnesses and challenges.  Her energy is kinesthetic, neurotic, and alive with bristling angst.

The centerpiece of the play is actually the youngest, Babe, Sarah Burton who seems to have the least amount of playing time.  Her dilemma is complicated by the fact that for the first half of the play she will not cop to why she shot her husband point blank, except to say she doesn’t like his looks.  When her story unravels, I had trouble feeling fully sympathetic for her. It is a disturbing role, and Burton commits to it with finesse and ease. She is the least associable sister, and it makes her more standoffish than the other two.  She seems the most human in her desperation at the end, and when flirting (sort of) with her lawyer, Barnette (Christian O’Neill).

Laura Malkus as the well-meaning but horribly over-intrusive cousin Chick is a knock out role.  Her coifed hair, meticulous lipstick, and southern insistence upon charm makes her a caricature of southern ladies.  She is meant to be the comic relief for a deep and disconcerting storyline with themes of suicide, attempted murder, statutory rape, and more.  If there are any genuine laughs to be had in this play, they are mostly associated with Malkus.

The only two men to grace the stage are minor roles, the women lead this one.  Gabe Fremuth plays Doc, a local doctor with a lame leg who has married and settled down, but always held a candle for Meg.  And Barnette Lloyd, Christian O’Neill who is a young and well-meaning lawyer anxious to prove his vendetta (which by the way they say like 20 times, I was gonna buy the playwright a thesaurus).  He has beef with Babe’s husband, the senator, and wants nothing more than to take him down in court, which is why he agreed to defending such a complicated case.

The set by Moe Conn is simply a southern kitchen in a middle class Mississippi neighborhood.  That retro dining room set is one of envy, except it groaned when the actors put their weight upon it.  The lights were simple and understated by Travis Seminara except for a few glitches?  There were two times in the play where lights seemed to be going on and off for what I think was no apparent reason, or was it meant to underscore Lenny’s emotions?  It is was, It seemed odd and out of character with what appeared a straight forward very realistic plot line and set.  Costumes are not noted in the program, but seemed to center around shoes.  The women just keep taking on and off high heels, and sliding across the kitchen linoleum.  With the changing of stockings and shoes and slipping around in skirts on an elevated stage, we got quite a few up the skirt peaks I am not sure we bargained for.

Anne Hammontree does a lot with the relationships in this play and it shows.  Her attention to detail and interest in the connectedness of lives, actors, and storylines all read very clearly from the audience perspective. At its heart, the story is about three sisters who have all coped with their tragic upbringing by committing themselves to very different lives. The family tree may branch and splinter, but the roots remain in tact.  Ann Turiano’s dialect coaching is so well done, I would believe these people were all from the south if I didn’t know better.  The pre-show and intermission(s) music by Eric C. Stein establishes an early 80s moment in time.  I was just a little put off that the songs were Linda Ronstadt whining “When will I be loved” and the classic “Stand by your man” when these three women seemed to be moving in such a different sphere of finding their own stories and lives without clinging to men.  Sigh.

SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?  It is a piece that is women-centered and offers a glimpse at strained family relations and mental illness.  The piece had its moments, and for some it is the pinnacle of theater.  I am just an old crony who doesn’t really do Chick Flicks.  The acting is spot on, the story has lifetime arcs and a solid cast.  If it is your cup of tea, check it out before the run is over. (I)

Running at Vagabond Players through March 24th.  Running time two and half hours with two intermissions.

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