Beth Henley won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981 for Crimes of the Heart. What made it surprising wasn’t so much that the play wasn’t great (it was one of the more competent ones amid a meager lot of plays during a period of commercial transition in mainstream American theater), but her gender. She was the first woman to win the award since 1958, only the seventh in history.
For one of the first times on Broadway, a major play about women that was written by a woman was a critical and audience hit, running for 535 performances and spawning a 1986 film with a ridiculous cast, name-wise, including Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard. The film’s cachet is one reason why it has blipped on the theatrical radar for so long, since, by any measure, this play about three twentysomething sisters in a small Mississippi city dealing with ghosts from their past and precarious lives in the present isn’t earth-shaking. It’s a little Chekhov, in that characters are stuck in repetitive cycles and tied to a place; a little Southern Gothic (horses get struck by lightning; cats get, well, no spoilers here!); and a lot of homespun American South in the vernacular and situation.
But there’s another reason why Crimes still has legs. It’s an opportunity for three women to dive into the idiosyncratic characters of these sisters, each flawed but furiously individual, each dealing with a troubling legacy and trying to find something to cling to.
In this Steven Biggs-directed production at STAGEStheatre, those performances belong to Tiffany Toner, who plays the eldest sister, Lenny; Erica Jackson, who plays the middle sister, Meg; and Alexandria Huie, who plays the youngest, Babe. There are three other characters in the play, including the sisters’ stuck-up cousin, Chick (Sam Green); a gentlemanly young Southern lawyer (Gil Garcia IV); and Doc Porter (Jeremy Krasovic), a salt-of-the-earth rural type who seems to exist solely to get one of the sisters out of the house. But this is a play about the three sisters, and any production breathes, or gasps, based on the strength of their performances.
And while there is plenty of breath in this production, there is also some labored breathing, preventing it from being as funny as it feels as if it should be, as well as less poignant than it absolutely is.
The play takes place in the kitchen (superbly detailed by set designer Jon Gaw, who apparently raided all of our grandmothers’ kitchens) of the Magrath household, a family whose grandfather is in the hospital, whose parents are both (maybe) dead, and whose eldest sister is turning into an aging spinster at the ripe, old age of 30. Meg has escaped Hazelhurst, Mississippi (population about 4,000), off to pursue her dreams in Hollywood, but Babe is in a heap of trouble, having just been arrested for shooting her husband because she “didn’t like his looks.”
Babe’s plight drives Meg back home, and we see that these sisters, who clearly love one another, also have—no surprise for anyone who has ever had a sibling—Big Issues, relating to their sisterly dynamic, the mystery surrounding their mother’s death, and a rather ominously absent father who is mentioned only in passing and usually with a great deal of resentment.
The sisters bicker, reminiscence, laugh, cry, bond, eat, drink and take halting steps at trying to deal with skeletons in their collective closest as well as with the gnarly double-whammy of a dying patriarch and the attempted murder of Babe’s husband.
But they’re also dealing with something else, something that Henley’s play, as it does often, often alludes to but never explicitly mentions: mental-health issues, both of their deceased mother and their own. Only one has suffered a breakdown, as she was recently confined to a mental hospital. But the other two show signs of something, whether that manifests in murderous or suicidal impulses or an obsessive mania to clean everything.
And each of the three main actresses does a solid job at portraying the complexities of her character through the breezy superficiality of many of the sisters’ conversations and the turbulent currents beneath. But only Toner’s Lenny seems fully realized. She is the most grounded of the three, serving as their grandfather’s caretaker and the family’s matriarch, but cracks in her seemingly solid foundation are there, and Toner does an excellent job in letting the fissures open, then quickly sealing them up again.
Where so much of Lenny’s process is internal, Jackson’s Meg is all external. That’s partly due to the character, as she is the most headstrong and free-spirited of the trio, but it’s also the acting. Jackson rarely stops moving, reacting or sounding (whether in actual lines or repeatedly affirming what others are saying). She’s 100 percent committed, but she too often draws focus, particularly when Biggs blocks her to sit center-stage as her sisters stand to the side. What the sisters are saying may be important in the moment, but it’s difficult to focus on them, as Meg is busy nibbling at candy, grimacing, rolling her eyes or otherwise making it all about her. It’s not that Jackson’s Meg isn’t believable, as when she does slow down, it’s clear there is more to her character, but it’s just too much too often.
Babe is the cipher of the play. She is the most fascinating of the three sisters and, arguably, the most important, as her actions set the entire play in motion. Though she has just tried to kill her husband, has violated the most serious of Southern taboos, and has apparently inherited more of her mom’s issues than her siblings, there’s very little edge to Huie’s performance, sapping it of any multidimensionality. Whereas Lenny inwardly tries to master her shadow and Meg gleefully delights in dancing with it, Babe’s doesn’t seem to exist. She seems to merely react to it, and that makes the play’s climax, which is already strange, even stranger, since it seems to come out of nowhere.
Crimes of the Heart is a play about family, love, frustration, stymied hopes and withering expectations. And that’s all about heart-—losing it or trying to keep it. While that heart beats in this production, it’s too erratic. That’s not a felony or even a serious misdemeanor, but it is an infraction.
Crimes of the Heart at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 31. $20-$22.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???