Saturday, January 11, 2014

Underwhelming Crimes

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart has not aged gracefully.  Acclaimed as a new version of Southern Gothic---right up there with Faulkner and Carson Mc Cullers---the drama won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  At a distance of thirty years, however, the play's construction seems amateurish and the attempts at humor faint.  The new lackluster production of the work at Everyman Theatre does little to galvanize this period piece.

Loosely based on Chekhov's Three Sisters, the play focuses on the travails of three sisters who are reunited in their Deep South home (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) due to a series of personal mishaps.  The three Magrath sisters are genuine Southern grotesques.  Lenny (Beth Hylton) is a lonely spinster overwhelmed by her solitude as she celebrates her thirtieth anniversary.  Meg (Megan Anderson) is a country-western singer whose career has collapsed in the midst of an avalanche of professional lies.  Babe (Dorea Schmidt) has just shot her husband and is awaiting trial, with her unctious lawyer Barnette (Jamie Smithson) trying to unravel the mysterious details of the assault.

As the plot langorously unfolds, there are conflicts, betrayals, and revelations of family secrets among the unhappy trio.  Much of the script bears the faults of a novice playwright.  Nostalgia periodically breaks in with "Do you remember when?" monologues.  Information on the characters (such as age and romantic history) is not so artfully shoehorned into the dialogue.  Family secrets ("Why did Mom kill herself?") are treated with predictable melodramatic conventions.  The temporal structure of the play is pat.  We open with poor Lenny weeping as she sings "Happy Birthday" to herself over one candle in an upturned glass.  We end with Meg, Babe, and Benny joyously singing "Happy Birthday" over thirty candles on a huge cake as they dance around the formica table and get ready to face life together.  Like the table, the joy seems plastic.  The efforts to wring humor out of this depressed  sorority only aroused polite laughter in the audience.

The direction of Susanna Gellert does little to help.  Like the script, the direction is often amateurish.  When "important moments" occur in the play, the lights suddenly dim and the audience is forced to focus on some solemnly delivered lines.  The actors have clearly done ther homework but the earnestness of their performances cannot overcome the cartoonish quality of the production.

Despite its problems, the production is visually stunning.  Debrah Booth's scenic design and Jay Herzong's lighting design handsomely recreate a middle-class Southern home dominated by its large modern kitchen complete with matching cabinets, ample range, and formica-esque counter in the aisle.  Designed by Levonne Lindsay, the costumes are pefectly chosen to bring out the distinctive personality and mood of each character. 

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