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Crimes of the Heart
Vortex Theater

Crimes of the Heart
Tara Brinduse, Anne Roser and
Clara Boling

If Mama hanging herself along with the old yellow cat, youngest sister Babe shooting her husband in the stomach, and sisters giggling about Granddaddy getting himself in a coma tickles your funny bone, then Crimes of the Heart is your tall glass of lemonade with extra sugar. Beth Henley, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and wrote the play at age 26, sets her southern fried black comedy in tiny Hazlehurst. She merges Chekov's three sisters with Flannery O'Connor's maverick misfits to create damaged women who win us over despite their flaws.

We meet the McGrath sisters on a bad day in 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille. Oldest sister Lenny, played with restrained pathos that teeters on the edge of self-pity by Tara Brinduse, is trying to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. Only judgmental cousin Chick (Stephanie Grilo) remembers and gives her a box of chocolates left over from last Christmas. Lenny's horse Billy Boy, whom she's had since she was ten, is struck dead by lightning. She's feeling doubly bereft since she told a man she met through "Lonely Hearts of the South" that she doesn't want to see him anymore, lest he reject her when he finds out about her shrunken ovary.

Middle sister Meg, portrayed as a disillusioned over-painted over-dressed Southern belle by Anne Roser, arrives from a failed singing career in California. Chick has already called her "cheap Christmas trash" for running with too many men and running away when Doc Porter (Richard Boehler) got his leg crushed in Biloxi during the hurricane. Meg tells Doc she didn't come home last Christmas because she was in a psychiatric ward at L.A. County Hospital. But when she visits Granddaddy in the hospital she tells him lies about an album and a movie coming out because she can't stand to disappoint him.

Youngest sister Babe, played as a capricious innocent airhead by Clara Boling, is having the worst day. She's just been bailed out of jail for attempting to murder her abusive politician husband. She's suicidal in a silly loose cannon sort of way. She tells Meg she picked up the burglar gun to shoot herself in the head after Zachary shoved her paramour down the front steps. Then she remembered her Mama hanging herself after Daddy ran off and realized she didn't want to kill herself; she wanted to kill Zachary. Later, when her lawyer Barnette (Chris Chavez) shows her incriminating photographs taken by a detective of her and Willie Jay in flagrante delicto, she again decides to kill herself. But the rope breaks when she tries to hang herself. She almost gasses herself in the oven but knocks her head on the oven rack and is stopped in the act by Meg.

Henley unfolds her comic plot by peeling layers into deeper truths. She introduces the central crisis with self-righteous cousin Chick rushing in, interrupting Lenny in the ridiculous act of trying to light a birthday candle stuck in a cookie: "Well, did you see today's paper? It's just too awful." Three scenes later Meg drags out of Lenny that Babe shot Zachary because she didn't like his looks.

The spare set by Charity Bryan and flamboyant costumes by Leslee Richards capture the flavor of the mid-seventies in the deep South. Director Lee Kitts provides excellent program notes which provide not only background on the playwright and previous productions but also on the historical and cultural context.

After its opening at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, Crimes of the Heart moved to Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980 and on to Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1981.  The 1986 film with Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, and Sissy Spacek was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

In 1979, Crimes of the Heart was embraced by those of us studying plays by and about women along with two other notables that year that paid no homage to the male gaze: Marsha Norman's Getting Out and Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others. Crimes of the Heart didn't give us role models of feminist strength and virtue, but it foregrounded the plight of ordinary women tangled in traps of convention with no hope of escape or growth. Lenny's shrunken ovary symbolized women's constraint in patriarchal societies, especially in swampy southern quicksand. The McGrath sisters survive by laughing and supporting one another, in contrast to the more common cat fights staged for male amusement that were featured in popular plays before the '70s.

Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley is running through September 26 at the Vortex Theater, 2004 1/2 Central SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 6 pm. Tickets are $15. Talkback with cast and director is September 12. Reservations at 247-8600 or vortexabq.org.


Photo: Alan Mitchell

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-- Rosemary Keefe



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