Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Crimes of the Heart
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Photo: Therese Plaehn, Lizzie O'Hara,
and Sarah Moser

Photo by Kevin Berne
It's a world where folks and family are named Annie Mae, Billy Boy, Willie Jay, and Buck Jr.; where, after shooting your husband, you make a pitcher of cold lemonade "with plenty of sugar" before calling for medical help; and where there is some pride that mama's suicide once made national news because she hung herself along with the family's big yellow cat at her side. It's a family where having "bad days" is "getting to be a thing" and where mounting tragedies and embarrassments are faced with yet another bottle of Coke from the Frigidaire. Secrets, confessions, rivalries, along with acts of revenge and remorse among immediate family members, are constantly interlaced with raucous laughter, over-the-top silliness, and lots of genuine love.

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, the 1981 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a fine example of modern Southern Gothic writing where there are never clear lines drawn between good and evil, victim and villain, or bad luck and willful malice. Such dichotomies exist with apparent ease of conscience within most of her characters—in this case, three sisters of the Magrath family of 1974 Hazelhurst, Mississippi. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley pulls this much-produced play off the shelf at a time when the ultimate glass ceiling failed to be broken in the November election. In doing so, the company provides us bizarre but powerful portraits of strong, no-holes-barred women who can be angry, despicable, and downright ugly; and yet at the same time, they are hilarious, likeable, and surprisingly admirable for their abilities to survive almost daily tragedies with a smile still showing.

As is often case in family tragicomedies, a crisis brings three sisters together in the home of their childhood, where one (Lenny) still lives taking care of "ol' granddaddy" (who is now in the hospital). Washed-up nightclub singer Meg has rushed in from Hollywood (after a long absence from her Mississippi family) upon receiving a telegram that youngest sister Babe has shot her husband Victor in the gut, claiming she did so because "I didn't like his stinking looks." The sisters vacillate from clearly enjoying the reunion—even under the stress of Babe's arrest and possible future life in prison—and getting into two- and three-way shouting, pouting, and crying brawls just short of physical assaults.

In and out of the mix comes Cousin Chick, a buxom, bouffant blonde (some might say "big-boned") who is clearly more worried about "how am I going to hold my head up" around the town than about the fate of her baby cousin Babe. Into the scene also arrives an old fling of Meg's, Doc Parsons, now-married with two kids, but whose signs of arousal shows he clearly has forgiven her ruining his chances of completing med school when she insisted years prior that they ride out Hurricane Camille (with his ending up with a crushed leg from a collapsed roof). Finally, fresh out of law school attorney Barnette Lloyd is eager to take on Babe's defense as his first ever case, with a motivation to gain revenge on her wounded husband Victor for past injustices done by the local politician to his father.

With all these juicy ingredients provided by the playwright, director Giovanna Sardelli has a heyday orchestrating a fine cast through wild and wooly, brazen and bizarre, sad and silly ups and downs. At times, she turns the adults into kids running and screaming madly about; at other times, she transforms them into something very close to chickens squawking and chasing each other about in a farmyard. Even attempts at suicide have hilarious outcomes under her clever direction and expert timing. And in the end, she knows how to highlight in a moving, believable manner the love that truly runs deep among these flawed, farcical sisters with traits eerily familiar to ourselves and/or our own family members.

With a voice that modulates into high and low ranges, a tendency to elongate syllables into almost cartoonish lengths, and arms that she sends flailing about like a television evangelist, Therese Plaehn is a wonder to watch in her role as the oldest sister, Lenny (all of thirty and in her mind, now a spinster far past her prime). Middle sister Meg, as played masterfully by Sarah Moser, is West Coast cool in dress and attitude upon arrival, but she begins to reveal in her nervous twitches and looks of a deer in headlights her own insecurities and secrets. Lizzie O'Hara as Babe, the would-be murderess, time and again uses her petite, red-haired persona to ensure much audience laughter through sudden jerks and manipulations of her body; rapid bursts of her spoken words punctuated by unexpected and repeated pauses; and an ability to be exact and rigid and yet at the same time full of Southern drawl in the words that come out in her tinny voice box. Together, these three actresses form a family unit that causes the watching audience to cringe, to cry, and to cheer—sometimes all in the same minute.

And they have more than sufficient support from the other three, outstanding actors playing their own quirky parts. Full of high-handed righteousness and ability to act holier than thou amongst her three cousins, Laura Jane Bailey as Chick brings the house down when she has no compunctions hiking up a pair of panty hose in front of them (and us) over her somewhat large legs and buttocks. As the young lawyer Barnette, Joshua Marx moves his long, slender limbs in a dozen directions at once as he gets fired up talking about his defense plans—bursting into sudden, high-voiced giggles and guffaws when his enthusiasm totally takes over. Timothy Redmond roves in and out of the house as Doc Porter, trying to act neighborly and non-assuming but all the time making obvious, wide-eyed moves toward hooking up with his old flame Meg.

Andrea Bechert has created a 1974 Southern home that still has furniture and fixtures from the 1950s and '60s—so full of details and oddities that it is a shame we as audience cannot go up afterwards to prowl around the wide-open rooms and back porch. As he always seems to do, Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting design beautifully accents the set and the script. And Jeff Mockus reminds us of the time period and the varying moods through his sound design of background music between scenes. Kimily Conkle has turned each of the actors into a bona fide Southerner with her dialect coaching, so much so that a few times the accents almost make the words foreign to the English-speaking ear.

The sometimes sad, often wacky, and usually hilarious goings on in the Magrath household remind us that forgiveness of family foibles is the road to keeping solid the bonds that, in the end, hold families together. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has dusted off a script some might consider a bit dated for 2017 and has proven that this Pulitzer winner indeed has some solid legs still to stand on.

Crimes of the Heart continues through February 5, 2017, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.