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Movies that returned to the regional theater circuit made two successful productions for Fort Erie's Gypsy Theatre.

"Educating Rita" and "Extremities," both starring Bernadette Feeney and directed by John Dalingwater, were plays that required, or at least accommodated, extremes of character acting.

Not so its most recent production. "Crimes of the Heart," Beth Henley's play about another bizarre, disordered family in the rural South, requires much more delicate handling than it receives here if it is to be more than a cartoon.

It isn't that "Crimes" is deep or subtle. As plays go, it's not the best cut on the counter, and its quality fluctuates wildly with the presentation. Henley's three odd-duck sisters (Bernadette Feeney, Ellen Opiela and Gail Edwards) rumble about, replaying the laments of their childhood in a carnival of Southern drawl and corn pone. A good bet, you'd think.

There isn't much to milk from Henley's dialogue, however. Even with stars like Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange and Diane Keaton, the film version offered nothing more than sudsy ambiance and a wacky gang of Mississippi gals pouting over a shriveled ovary, skulking through the dawn's early light or chasing one another around the kitchen screaming nonsense in addled accents.

That isn't to say that Henley doesn't provide plenty of bathos, white trash retreads and half-baked psychobabble. It's just that given the regrettably limited stereotypes made available to them by the playwright, the actresses involved have to reach into themselves quite deeply to pull a real person out onto the stage.

One note for each character won't do, particularly if it is loud and shrill as it is here. Feeney (Lenny), Opiela (Meg) and Catalano (Chick), in particular, appear at times to be dueling for center stage, racing wildly around, yelling the dialogue more and more loudly and with no distinction among them or their words.

Instead of ebb and flow, we get tidal wave -- and always the same height at that.

This is a real problem, particularly since every onstage duo opposes extremes: good sister vs. bad sister; innocent sister vs. guilty sister; virgin sister vs. sexually active sisters; family-oriented sister vs. home wreckers.

In each case, the "Mary" is Feeney as the long-suffering Lenny and the "Magdalene" is one of her sisters (round-heeled vixen; adulterous, husband-shooting infant) or the loud-mouthed, tasteless cousin.

The "good" sister isn't that good, though. She's given to envious rages and hysterical fits induced by her sexual repression. So Lenny whines endlessly -- and loudly. Her hair is always a mess, she rants and cries or looks wretched at all times. Meg, on the other hand, strikes poses, struts and yells her lines with the subtlety of a angry pit bull. Chick yips on and on like a hall full of electronic feedback. It's sometimes funny but too often just cacophonous.

Only Edwards as the midget-brained "Babe" strikes the right note here, holding her own self-mesmerized buzz throughout the Bugs Bunny chase scenes and shouting matches. She, too, has a few unfortunate moments of merciless mugging, but over all gives a nice even tone to Babe, an unlikely seductress of a black teen-ager with whom she has perhaps fallen a bit in love.

Dalingwater has miscast himself as "Doc," the slow-talking, shifty-footed, good old tomcat looking to spray Meg's door one more time (and she's as ready as she'll ever be). He seems too clean-cut and a little young for this role (he isn't, but he looks it). There is really no sexual tension between him and Opiela, either. Feeney's tongue-tied crush is much more believable, although laid on a bit thick.

John Berst plays a nice role as the young attorney smitten with the two "tainted" sisters, and the third act scene between him and Edwards is a welcome oasis of subtlety.

A lot of energy, good set, lighting that's a little slow at times.

Things will probably tone down a bit as the run continues, but at least you won't go to sleep.

Crimes of the Heart

Beth Henley's comedy-drama of a Southern family.

Directed by John Dalingwater. Featuring Bernadette Feeney, Ellen Opiela, Gail Edwards.

Performances continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4, through July 28 (performances at 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday have been added for the Friendship Festival).

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