On the face of it, Kathleen Turner could not have chosen better material to make her directorial debut than Beth Henley’s 1981 Pulitzer-winning play about three reunited Southern sisters. It’s your prototypical family dramedy and it’s a lot less daunting than taking on, say, “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” “Crimes of the Heart” is a solid, albeit safe choice for Turner, and her cast in the Williamstown Theater Festival production is on key, with hardly a false note throughout.
But perhaps that’s selling the actress-turned-director a little short. This is a more difficult play to pull off than it might appear. Those who have seen it before (even in Bruce Beresford’s 1986 film version with Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek), may remember it as a crowd-pleaser. At times, in fact, it tries so hard to be likeable it can feel a little cloying. But the real challenge with this work is how little actually happens in it. Both the long-ago suicide of the sisters’ mother and the recent shooting of her husband by youngest sibling Babe (played flawlessly and tenderly by Lily Rabe) have occurred before the play has even begun.
Henley says she loosely based her first full-length work on Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” and while there are certainly more laughs here, both rely upon the accumulation of small moments, most of which are realized by Turner and company.
Kris Stone’s modest set of the Magrath family kitchen — with its suggested transparent frame house and beyond it a cloudy sky that seems to hold equal promise of a coming storm and a sunny day about to break through — perfectly mirrors the mood of the piece, which darts but mostly drifts from light to dark and back again. Christal Weatherly’s costumes ably capture the period (early 1970s) without calling too much attention to themselves.
While most of the play consists of backstory, there are a lot of incidental stories here to tell. They just never really progress. (By play’s end we’re not even sure of the results of Babe’s legal troubles.)
The most adventuresome of the trio, middle sister Meg (Sarah Paulson, perhaps lacking the necessary edge) returns from California where she’s been pursuing a mostly unsuccessful singing career — she’s actually a clerk for a dog food company. Babe, of course, has just shot her husband, and, we learn she has been carrying on with an unseen 15-year-old boy “of color” — Willie J.
Meanwhile, oldest sister Lenny (a nuanced and deft portrayal by Jennifer Dundas) has been holding down the fort, living with her grandfather, who has been hospitalized after a recent stroke. Meg’s brokenhearted former boyfriend, “Doc” Porter (Patch Darragh, looking just a little too young and playing it just a little too old), now married with children, is sniffing around wanting to get a nostalgic whiff of his former love; and Babe’s lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (played with sweet intensity by WTF vet Chandler Williams) is falling hard for his client, and vice versa.
It’s all very genial. The only unlikable character in the bunch is cousin Chick Boyle (Kali Rocha), who comes around for a bit of comic relief but has no real menace to her mean-spiritedness. And while Meg goes off on a joyride with Doc, Lenny celebrates her 30th birthday and Babe eventually even tries to kill herself after incriminating photographs emerge of her with Willie J., it doesn’t really amount to anything more than a bad day.
“We got to learn how to get through these bad days,” Meg says to Babe, after she discovers her sister with her head in the oven. It might be a bad day for the folks from Hazelhurst, Miss., but it’s a pleasant one for those up in Williamstown.