Crimes of the Heart
Directed by Cassie Steck Worley
Starring Rebecca Frank, Lara Grice, Megan Sauzer Harms, A.J. Allegra, Claire Gresham and Nick Thompson
8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Dec. 12-13; 2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 14
Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St., 522-2081; www.lepetittheatre.com
There is so much eating on stage in Crimes of the Heart one wonders why the playbill doesn't include a few recipes. The Macgrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Miss., aren't enjoying the best of times and appear to be eating their sorrows away when not offering the audience thick slices of lilting accents. At times, the recipe seems to draw too liberally on clichés of the genteel south — Steel Magnolias (proper grooming and manners mask all problems), Forrest Gump (unwitting profundity from plain-spoken folks) and maybe even Tennessee Williams (sexual desire drives people to do socially unacceptable things). But Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is its own sweet and bittersweet melodrama and rises above some of the more saccharine elements of deadpan humor about suhhhh-thurn wimmen.
The simplest recipe revealed onstage is for lemonade, an aptly placed central metaphor for a play that strives to sweeten its trio of siblings' most sour experiences. Lenny Macgrath (Rebecca Frank) storms into her kitchen prepared to celebrate her 30th birthday solo, but she's a wreck, upset she's overripe and heading toward spinsterhood with her hair falling out and still unwed. Self-absorbed sister Meg (Lara Grice) returns home after a crisis of confidence crushed her singing career and resulted in a stint at a mental institution in California. And Babe (Megan Sauzer Harms) is in an oddly serene mood given that she shot her husband (in the stomach, of course) the day before. Adding to the misery, Lenny's pet horse was struck by lightning and died. Their home belongs to the grandfather who raised them, and he has taken up essentially terminal residence in a hospital, continually on his deathbed and a worry on Lenny's mind. When the sisters' mother died, he took them straight from the funeral parlor to an ice cream parlor to cheer up with banana splits, and the three gleefully recall how they ate till they were sick.
The play manages to feel like a comedy despite the lack of anything overtly funny in the story. The women earnestly try to help one another through all the crises. They possess a heartening spirit of resilience and pluck, although they are sometimes sad and often deeply lonely. The horrors of their personal lives seem to far outweigh the women's comprehension or means. Babe tried to shoot her husband in the heart but missed, one more shortcoming in her life. She plans to plead guilty and accept punishment, even though there are quite problematic extenuating circumstances. Meg enlists a lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (A.J. Allegra), to defend her, but Babe isn't interested.
Performances by Frank, Grice and Harms infuse the play with energy and finesse its humor. Frank is a forceful bundle of nervous energy as the self-effacing but most grounded sister, though she's upset by small slights like her sisters forgetting her birthday. Grice is entertainingly righteous as a dreamer who generally believes her own lies and is skilled at letting others clean up after her. Harms convincingly balances Babe's sweet innocence and rash impulses. Allegra brings a rather flat character to life. As the meddling cousin Chick Boyles, Claire Gresham captures the play's sense of unflappable obliviousness by donning a pair of pantyhose — that to flatter herself she's requested sizes too small — while standing at the edge of the stage for a few careening wiggles.
Charm trumps a lot, particularly choices that are otherwise hard to swallow. In that, director Cassie Steck Worley's production succeeds in having its cake and eating it, too. It's a good trick if you're planning on entertaining with some old-fashioned Southern hospitality.