"...A pure vein of Southern gothic humor!"
It's 1974 in rural Mississippi, five years after Hurricane Camille, and Babe Magrath is having a bad day. She didn't like the way her husband looked, and so…she shot him.
Needless to say, he's not too happy about it. Now out on bail, Babe reunites with her two sisters to make sense of their most recent misfortunes. Meg is back from a failed career in the music industry. Lenny is lamenting her forgotten 30th birthday. Their mother is dead, and so is the cat, and so too, nearly, is Old Granddaddy—not to mention their horse, who has just been struck dead by lightning. But not all is bad, and the sisters find plenty to laugh about as they navigate the troubled world they may or may not have brought upon themselves.
“Crimes of the Heart,” a pure vein of Southern gothic humor, is American playwright Beth Henley's brilliant dark comedy, and playing now through February 17th at the Costa Mesa Playhouse in a charming and hilarious portrait of women in the South, all decked out with taints of suicide, mental illness, attempted murder, adultery, and just the plain old inability to get along.
Winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, along with a Tony for Best Play, Henley later adapted the story into a film starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard. Now, three local remarkably talented actresses step into the roles of the eccentric Magrath sisters under the affectionate direction of Madison Wackerman (Associate Producer for Walt Disney Imagineering).
The play opens in a town called Hazlehurst. Babe’s predicament brings the Magrath sisters back together in the home where Old Granddaddy raised them. But he’s now in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. And the girls must all confront the ghosts of their own past, their shaky futures and the presence of other odd characters: their nosy, fussbudget first cousin, Chick Boyle (Alexandria Churchwell), the young, novice attorney Barnette Lloyd (Joseph Daniels), and Doc Porter (Mark Tillman), who Meg left to crash and burn after she took off for the bright lights of Hollywood.
The action plays out through a believable, 1970s-style set featuring wonderfully kitschy touches. An oldfangled refrigerator loaded with Coca-Cola, a curtain under the sink hiding the trash, a push-button wall phone, a coffee percolator, and knitted art décor, known for that era, hangs strategically around the room – all snuggled in an unpretentious forest green wall covering. Poignant, funny, and sad moments play out against this perfect backdrop, giving the play a “homey” feel and making the story all the more intimate.
Stephanie Noel Garrison plays Lenny, the eldest of the trio, who has taken on the caregiver role since their mother hung herself – along with the cat – in the basement. The drama opens with her celebrating her 30th birthday all alone by putting a candle in a cookie and singing “Happy birthday to me.” Lenny has frequent bouts of depression, and deep, inner fears of rejection, complete with extended crying spells.
She is frustrated after years of carrying heavy burdens of responsibility. Most recently, she has been caring for Old Granddaddy, sleeping on a cot in the kitchen to be near him. Lenny loves her sisters but is also jealous of them, especially Meg, who she feels has always received preferential treatment during their upbringing. Having settled for the life of a spinster, she has, from all indications, never had an intimate relationship with the opposite sex. No wonder she's crying.
Meg, portrayed with particular gusto by Silvana Gargione, is the middle child and Lenny’s polar opposite. The chain-smoking, saucy, sharp-tongued, would-be nightclub singer seems ready for anything, including the inevitable drunken romp with her old flame, Doc, in his pickup truck. Doc remains infatuated with Meg, even after his marriage to another woman and the birth of his two children. They spend their first little tryst after Meg’s return on a moonlit drive, reminiscing over the past. Somehow this perturbs Chick to no end, who says that Meg’s promiscuous reputation will not help with the public relations problem they’ll soon be facing.
The youngest sister, Babe Botrelle (Cindy Cisneros), is the unlikely driving force of the play. Fresh from her own battle with the courts, she has just shot her abusive husband, a state senator, in the stomach (although aiming for his heart) after he discovered that she had been having an affair with Willie Jay, a fifteen-year-old boy who came to Babe’s house to see the dog she tended for him. The only rationale she gives for shooting Botrelle is that she was “havin’ a bad day.” He will live, but unless something drastic changes, she will go to court and there is no reason to think she will not be found guilty.
As the sisters try to navigate the ominous legal proceedings to come by hiring wet-behind-the-ears attorney, Barnette, they reveal secrets about themselves that illustrate the terrible effects that their mother’s suicide and their father’s abandonment have had on each of them. Still in a state of shock over her death, they were further confounded that she hung her yellow cat at the same time, which brought national notoriety to the case. They could only surmise that she didn't want to leave this world alone. One thing, however, is perfectly clear. Whatever wrong that has been done to them, all three sisters certainly qualify as poster girls for family dysfunction.
Over the course of the play, each sister confronts her own demons and finds the possibility of change. "Crimes of the Heart" in summary is an indictment of improper parenting, an illustration of the devastation of suicide, and a rallying cry in support of the mentally ill.
Themes of loneliness, isolation, and humor as the greatest weapons of self-defense take center stage throughout. Ultimately, it is a play about the need people have to share their stories with others. It carries the message that “family” means the people who are always there, whether they are blood relatives or not, and that as long as there are no secrets or cover-ups between them, there will be little opportunity or reason for contrition, scandal, or embarrassment.
The cast does an excellent job of keeping the play from sinking into the murkiness of hardship and misery, and the main leads give extraordinary portrayals of the quibbling siblings.
Ms. Garrison is able to breathe life into Lenny, who enjoys perhaps the only happy moment in this story. And by the play’s end, she is even encouraged to resume a relationship with Charlie Hill, a man who replied to Lenny’s personal ad in a dating periodical. Her fear that he would reject her because of her “missing ovary” proves to be unfounded, and the whole audience gets behind her at the end for her second chance.
Ms. Cisneros shows acting abilities beyond her years in her multi-faceted depiction of Babe. She could easily allow the character to fall into the pit of craziness, but the actress keeps her portrayal above the pity line. When Babe’s husband threatens via phone from his hospital bed to have her committed, she tries to kill herself – as her mom did. Unsuccessful with a rope, she sticks her head into the oven of a stove, and the whole scene becomes unintentionally droll - pots and pans falling on her head, matches strewn all over the kitchen, and drawing chuckles from the audience who are secretly wondering if laughter is even appropriate.
As Meg, Ms. Gargione is a spitfire with a big heart, but also a distracted spirit. She wants to do good, but gives up to her own passions in the process. Her portrayal shows Meg as being full of love, but with personal whims that often get in the way. As the one who found her mother in the basement, Meg was greatly affected.
This very traumatic experience provoked Meg to test her strength by confronting morbidity wherever she could find it, including pouring over medical photographs of disease-ridden victims and staring at March of Dimes posters of crippled children. She finally admits she suffered a nervous breakdown during her quest for musical success, and ended up in the psychiatric ward of the county hospital. She actually works in a dog food factory. Luckily, the rekindling of her romance with Doc also sees the return of her singing voice.
Ms. Churchwell is the perfect meddlesome neighbor who feels she can stick it in the faces of the Magrath sisters because she’s a relative. Chick's utmost concern is how she's "gonna continue holding my head up high in this community." Her visits are as welcome as a root canal, and finally goes too far in her vitriolic attack when she berates Babe as a murderer and refers to all the Magrath sisters as “trash.” Lenny drives her out of the house with a broom in a hilarious turn that has the audience howling. Ms. Churchwell is excellent in her depiction of the sparkplug character and makes a commendable supporting counterbalance with the dead-pan humor coming from the sisters.
Mark Tillman's portrayal of Doc comes from years of professional theatre around Southern California. Last seen at Costa Mesa Playhouse in "The Christians," he most recently took on a commanding role of Ransome Foster in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" at The Attic. In "Crimes.." Mr. Tillman assumes the role of Meg's old boyfriend, now around 30 years old.
He is still known affectionately as "Doc" although his plans for a medical career stalled and eventually died after he was severely injured in Hurricane Camille. His love for Meg (and her promise to marry him) prompted him to stay behind with her while the rest of the town evacuated the storm's path. Many people now have the perception that Meg baited Doc into staying there with her. But although Meg abandoned him when she left for California, Doc remains loyal, and Meg is extremely happy to have his friendship upon her return to Mississippi.
Mr. Daniels’ portrayal of talented but straight-laced lawyer, Barnette, the “Emmett Forrest-like” attorney who is more interested in Babe than her court case, is terrific as he struggles to keep things professional and to mask his romantic attraction to his vulnerable client. He had remembered her from a chance meeting at a Christmas bazaar the year before. Barnette has his own personal vendetta against Babe’s husband, who was formerly a state senator from Copiah County and had wreaked havoc on his own family, and hopes to uncover all of Botrelle’s criminal dealings. Barnette is prevented from taking on the case in open court by the desire to protect Babe's affair with Willie Jay from public exposure. He is willing to make this sacrifice for Babe, and the play ends with some hope that his efforts will be rewarded.
Beth Henley’s gifts as a playwright are indisputable as evidenced in the currently packed house at Costa Mesa Playhouse. Under the skillful direction of Director Wackerman, this soulful masterpiece is as vibrant and affecting as it was four decades ago. With the exception of NASCAR and football, the play examines all things Southern from powerful patriarchs to pecan pies and pretty much everything in between; and it does so with style and humor.
Lighting Design is by Ryan Linhardt, Set Design supervised by Artistic Director Michael Serna, with assistance by Mike Brown, Steve Endicott, Peter Kreder and Chris Mertan. The Stage Manager is Michelle Percival.
Only a playwright with Henley’s natural talent can spin a yarn as entertaining as it is enlightening. Although considered a Tragi-comedy, this was a most enjoyable experience. Rated Highly Recommended! “Crimes of the Heart” plays January 25th through February 17th. Tickets may be purchased online at http://costamesaplayhouse.com/im_pages/tickets.htm
*photos by Kerrin Serna