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Crimes of the Heart

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sarah Paulson, Jennifer Dundas, and Lily Rabe
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It might be only a pre-show announcement, but it's a doozy: That basso rasp, a voice that's the height of sultry sophistication married to just the tiniest inkling of threat, could belong to only woman. And by the time Kathleen Turner has finished intoning her warning against opening candy and turning off cell phones, you're fully prepared for the smoky, on-the-edge evening of bristling urbanity this actress always seems to involve herself with. What ensues instead is Crimes of the Heart, and that's a problem.

Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning, warm-fuzzy salute to the highs and woes of Southern sisterhood is so far removed from Turner's most publicly comfortable climes that even on paper it's an unlikely match. In the Roundabout Theatre Company's sunny production at its Laura Pels Theatre, based on last summer's mounting at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it's an even more uneasy pairing, with Turner's uptown sensibility doing few favors for a story that needs to be as down-home as it can possibly get.

For though Hazelhurst, Mississippi, survived being ravaged by Hurricane Camille five years earlier (the play is set in 1974), it's managed to avoid defilement from the outside world. That arrives with walloping force when the usually mild-mannered Babe Magrath (Lily Rabe) is carted off to jail for shooting her husband in the stomach, claiming she didn't like the way he looked, an act that could be the catastrophic turning point in her life and the lives of her two sisters and the grandfather who cared for them following their parents' death. (Babe has also been spending too much time with a 15-year-old black boy.)

The play's substantial, yet unassuming, potency from the contrast between Babe and sisters Lenny (Jennifer Dundas), newly 30 and with one "shrunken ovary" and a biological clock about to strike 12, and Meg (Sarah Paulson), an unstable singer who's just wrapped up her California career in personal disgrace. Ideally, the trio proves the worth of that dusty old canard about blood's thickness relative to water, and rediscovers value in the family unit they let slip when they did what so many adult siblings tend to do: grow apart.

Crimes of the Heart, which started at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville and eventually progressed to a 1981 Broadway run by way of Manhattan Theatre Club, is the kind of wholesome stage treacle that the Lifetime television network has all but made obsolete today. But Henley's portrayals of the women, which completely avoid condescension, still disarm with their loving honesty, and needs only the sparks of three in-tune actresses to bring their troubles to crackling life.

Yet the only significant requirement is the one that Turner's production has not met. These women do nothing to convince you that they're close kin, or even distant cousins, which makes the evening more smothering than enveloping.

Rabe looks and sounds the most authentic, adorned with flowing blonde locks and a luxurious Southern lilt well befitting a bloom grown in the sun, and Rabe adeptly captures Babe's cosseted fragility and inability to comprehend the turns she's let her life take. But Paulson, made up like a low-rent Cher impersonator, seems to have sprung fully formed from a trailer park, while Dundas conveys Lenny with the mien of a stuffy New England businesswoman going through a Southern phase; there are times you can accept the former as a broken-down chanteuse and the latter as Granddaddy's devoted caretaker, but it's usually a stretch.

Turner simply hasn't successfully fostered the bonds between the Magraths, which leaves them a collection of strangers in an oversized country house (the cozy work of set designer Anna Louizos), even when it's vital they come together. This is most obvious in the evening's second half, which is fairly barren without the comedy that traditionally comes from the women's reestablishing their rapport with each other. The smile-jerking conclusion, which can usually plaster grins across the faces of even the hardest-hearted cynics, is somewhat of a wash here; the message seems to be that you can eat your cake, but not have it, too.

The other performers, including Jessica Stone as meddling cousin Chick, Patch Darragh as smoldering flame Doc, and Chandler Williams as Babe's bright-eyed lawyer Barnette, fit more snugly into the proceedings, and create a much better sense of how Hazelhurst is coping with being thrust into the unfriendly modern world. But their limited impact on the outcome prevents them having much effect on the show as a whole.

Turner's influence, however, is evident throughout, in the highly intelligent, almost cerebral, manner in which the story unfolds. This is not, however, Crimes of the Head - Henley's goal is to examine the myriad dangers unchecked emotions can pose to the well-adjusted life. Life in this Hazelhurst, however, is so well-adjusted that even a silent crime of the heart would lead to a felony conviction, exactly the wrong feeling for a play about the personal laws we obey and break in search of love for our siblings and for ourselves.

Crimes of the Heart
Through April 13
Roundabout Theatre Company Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street (Between 6th and 7th Avenue)
Current Schedule and Tickets online: Roundabout Theatre Company

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