Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart presents special problems because it is the gold standard of contemporary Southern gothic humor. But material like this is hard to pull off because the swings between emotional extremes are so great and can happen so suddenly.
The play concerns four granddaughters (three sisters and a cousin) living in Hazlehurst, Mississippi ("five years after Hurricane Camille," i.e. 1974). One of the sisters, Babe (Natalie Wilder), has just shot her husband, Zachary Botrelle, and is about to get out on bail. Her only hope lies in her lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (John Griffin), who is sweet on her. The bad-girl sister, Meg (Gretchen Greaser), is coming in from L.A., where she has been trying to make it as a singer/actress. Meg immediately shows her homewrecker instincts by going after her old flame Doc Porter (Glenn B. Stoops). Plain sister Lenny (Donna Dimino) keeps the family home - actually the grandfather's home, as control-freak cousin Chick (Lee Tennebaum) can't resist pointing when Grandfather is on the verge of dying. It is Lenny's 30th birthday. Meg shows her distinctive personality by taking one bite each out of Lenny's only present, a box of chocolates. (These are not the uptight WASPs of A.R. Gurney. For this family, nothing is off the table for discussion.)
Perhaps the most revealing moment occurred when the sisters have a laughing jag over the fact that their grandfather has just had another stroke and is in a coma. That the moment worked is an indicator that this cast had the audience in the proverbial palm of their hands - an iffy proposition in the first act, when they at first seemed just too hysterical and over-the-top. Stoops, as Doc Porter, provided a solid balance for the hysterical trio. Griffin, as Barnette Lloyd, the shy, love-stricken, but clever young lawyer, at first seemed several decibels quieter than everyone else, but as the performance matured it became clear that each cast member was playing his or her instrument at its appropriate volume and key, and the result was perfect harmony. Kudos to first-time director Lauren and the cast for creating such a seamless ensemble!
The costumes (Anne Young) perfectly reflected the dysfunctional personalities of the characters and rang a consistent '70s note. Set (Craig Stoebling) and lights (Wayne Miller) created a problem, as the stage floor was painted a buff color and the walls were an intense yellow (and not "techniqued," or patterned, but covered in flat latex). The yellow light from the stage drowned the actors in a bland lentil soup of light, and their faces disappeared into the yellow walls. But the set dressing, a mélange of tchochkes, plants, an old-fashioned refrigerator, and a kitchen sink, was superlative indulgence. Sound design (Michael Ancona) consisted mainly of appropriately mood-setting pre-show country music.
Audiences would be well-advised to check out this well-managed, stable, and hardworking group, operating out of Staten Island's Seaview Hospital (whose former nurses' residence happens to have a theatre).
Lighting: 0/Sound: 1
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton