Beth Henley was 29-years old when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for her first full-length play, “Crimes of the Heart.” Someone commented back then that Henley was “probably the first and only winner of the prestigious award to sport a pony-tail.”
The Jackson, Mississippi-born playwright has often been compared favorably to Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, two iconic writers of the American South, chroniclers of love and family, the ties that bind, warts and all, troubles, eccentricities, warm, complex tales of parents and siblings and varied kinfolk down-home. Fodder for soaps? Perhaps.
Second Generation Theatre, calling the historic Lancaster Opera House home this theatrical season, has just opened a revival of “Crimes of the Heart,” Greg Natale directing a handsome cast of six: Charmagne Chi, Jessica Wegrzyn, Bethany Burrows, Arin Lee Dandes, Ben Michael Moran and Jacob Albarella; talented young pros, all.
The scene is the tiny burg of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, five years after Hurricane Camille, 1974, and the story introduces Lenny, Babe and Meg, sisters, just now gathered around the kitchen table to hopefully find solutions to some disturbing dilemmas that have the family in an uproar. It’s true. Bad things do happen to good people.
So, the girls are home: Lenny (Chi), 30 and edging into spinsterhood - because of an “ovary problem,” she says; vagabond Meg (Wegrzyn), a wannabe singer who left Hazelhurst with a sleep-around reputation and has returned with a taste for bourbon; and the youngest, Babe (Burrows), a ditz and currently out on bail for shooting her husband in the stomach because she “didn’t like his looks.” The sisters are also distraught at their granddaddy’s serious illness, something terminal; he’s comatose and the end is very near.
There’s more dismay: Lenny’s old horse has died. “Struck by lightnin’,” she’s told. And cousin Chick (Dandes) is her usual pesky self, chastising, holier-than-thou.
As they sort all these things out - particularly Babe’s crisis, which gets stickier by the minute - and attempts are made to hug and reconnect, old grudges and slights surface only to dissolve into laughter over memories of nonsense and fun times growing up. Shrieks. More shrieks. Lots of sophomoric behavior.
“Crimes of the Heart” starts to lose its earlier appeal and listeners and watchers ultimately begin to wonder if they should care anymore - just about the time there is resolve on several fronts. Welty and O‘Connor it is not.
Actresses love this play and Chi, Wegrzyn and Burrows are excellent portraying every challenging minute portraying the diverse Magrath sisters. And they’re aided by Ben Michael Moran as Doc, a former Meg beau, and Jacob Albarella as Babe’s lawyer, Barnette. This stellar cast and Greg Natale’s able direction come close to saving the night.
Southern charm? Not so much.
“Crimes of the Heart”
2.5 stars (out of four)
Dark comedy at Lancaster Opera House, produced by Second Generation Theatre (SGT) through Nov.20. For information, call 508-7480 or to secondgenerationtheatre.com.
Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $10 for students, with group discounts available.