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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart Revived at the McCarter

Crimes of the Heart
Georgia Cohen, Mary Bacon and Molly Camp
When, after two hours and forty minutes including two intermissions, the McCarter revival of Beth Henley's off-beat comedy Crimes of the Heart reaches its final moments as the adult MaGrath sisters of the small Southern town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, share their common memories and re-establish their familial bonds, we are movingly caught up in the pain, sorrow and joy of this all too human and fragile trio. However, for much of the evening, this reincarnation of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning play is not as engaging and buoyant as it might have been.

The action occurs over the course of a fateful day in the kitchen of the MaGrath house. The eldest MaGrath sister is Lenny (Leonora) who is single and spinsterish. She lives with and tends to their grandfather in the house where the sisters were raised by their grandparents after their mother committed suicide (after killing her cat). At Lenny's request, middle sister 27-year-old Meg is on a visit home. She resides in Hollywood, California, where she has been pursuing a singing career. In short order, Meg reveals that her career path has stalled, that she has had a nervous breakdown, and that she has been working as a clerk for Alpo. Grandfather is in the hospital where he may well be on his last legs. However, the reason why Lenny has summoned Meg home is that youngest sister Babe (Rebecca) has shot her husband with their home "burglar gun." The off-center and unrepentant Babe, free on bail, is blithely unconcerned.

Also on hand are Chick Boyle, the sisters' social-climbing, domineering cousin at the ready to deliver hectoring "help"; Barnette Lloyd, a young lawyer with love in his heart for Babe and a grievance against her wounded husband; and Doc Porter, the boyfriend that Meg left behind when she took off for Hollywood, now a married father but still has a hankering for Meg.

The MaGrath girls have a somewhat askew view of the world and playwright Beth Henley has an even more askew view of them and their situation. And Crimes of the Heart finds the humorous side of their troubles and how they cope with them. Each of the three is assigned responsibility for the unhappy position in which she finds herself and the manner in which she deals with it. And, maybe, each succeeding one is less admirable than her next eldest sister. After all, it is difficult for a child to cope with her mother's suicide, and likely most difficult for the youngest. It is their quirky off-centeredness and humanity and their ability to bond as sisters that endear them to us.

However, the casting and the direction of Liesl Tommy fails to exploit all that Crimes of the Heart has to offer. Physically, the actresses cast as the MaGrath sisters bear no resemblance to one another. Surely, this happens in real families, but it stands out like a sore thumb when their movements, mannerisms, speech patterns, and accents are also so diverse. It feels as if we are watching three actresses who have been cast by different directors for different productions. Still, Mary Bacon is a very appealing Lenny and Georgia Cohen convincingly displays the growing strength of Meg through her reconnection with her familial roots. Molly Camp is more problematic as the married baby sister Babe. While admittedly, Babe is the most mercurial of characters, Camp completely fails to integrate the contrasting aspects of Babe into a believable human being. Selfishness, coquettishness, anger and sweetness are each suddenly unleashed at full force without any transitions. Possibly, director Tommy and Camp are depicting Babe as being seriously mentally ill. Or, at times, lacking in mental acuity. Such interpretations are valid. However, lacking a smoother, more integrated approach, the characterization did not work for this viewer.

It is also a bit of a problem that Brenda Withers' pushy Cousin Chick is so alive and colorful that she is more entertaining to watch in a supporting role than are the three leads. Dustin Ingram (Barnette Lloyd) and Lucas Van Engen (Doc Porter) lend solid support despite the fact that Henley doesn't appear particularly interested in her male characters.

Andromache Chalfant's kitchen set is quite interestingly detailed and appropriately messy. However, with the second-story house front depicted just above it, the wide set appears shallow and unnaturally elongated.

The McCarter's Crimes of the Heart may not shine as brightly as one might wish, but it presents an opportunity to see an entertaining minor classic of the American stage which you may well find rewarding.

Crimes of the Heart continues performances (Evenings Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 7:30 pm (except March 27); Friday and Saturday 8 pm / Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through March 27, 2011 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.

Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley; directed by Liesl Tommy

Cast
Lenny MaGrath................Mary Bacon
Chick Boyle................Brenda Withers
Doc Porter...............Lucas Van Engen
Meg MaGrath...............Georgia Cohen
Babe Botrelle....................Molly Camp
Barnette Lloyd..............Dustin Ingram


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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