Whenever ingredients like laughter and tears, sadness and euphoria are combined to describe a play, book or movie, it usually spells populist treacle. And that familiar recipe makes Beth Henley’s 1979 play, “Crimes of the Heart,” now seem a somewhat unadventurous choice for Pulitzer honors. But in a good production, the playwright’s compassionate understanding of her characters makes it easy to get caught up in the volatile world of these Southern women, sharing their affections, animosities and the bruised ambivalence their rocky history with men has bred. It’s no mystery why this play would appeal to an actress turning her hand to directing, and Kathleen Turner’s staging hits all the right marks.
It might now be easy to dismiss Henley’s play as Southern Gothic-meets-Chekhov lite, but that’s due more to the steady stream of similarly flavored material churned into telefilms over subsequent decades than to any weakness in the work itself. This is a warmly observed slice of life that wraps a lived-in, naturalistic frame around its character-driven comedy and pathos. That frame here is enhanced by the meticulous detailing of Anna Louizos’ homey set, bathed in the soft notes of Natasha Katz’s lighting.
Redesigned for Roundabout since its premiere at last summer’s Williamstown Theater Festival, the play is given a polished presentation that maximizes its strengths. Among them are Henley’s ability to balance an often comical point of view with the sobering realities of an unfortunate family; the down-home wit of the play’s dialogue; the unshakable conviction of its characters that even their most irrational thoughts and behavior are sound; and the considerable feat of making the three archetypal central figures into fresh, fully-inhabited people.
The Magrath sisters from Hazlehurst, Miss., all seem cut from familiar cloth. Meg (Sarah Paulson) is the irresponsible free spirit who fled to California to pursue a singing career, leaving hurricane devastation and emotional wreckage behind her. Only 30, but prematurely aged, with a fussy joylessness that screams “spinster,” Lenny (Jennifer Dundas) is the dutiful one who stayed home to take care of the folks; she even has the prerequisite Southern accoutrement of a “female” complaint, in this case a “shrunken ovary.” The aptly named Babe (Lily Rabe) is the pretty woman-child with feet planted none-too-firmly on the ground.
The three sisters are drawn back to the family home when Babe is arrested for shooting her crooked state senator husband, Zackery, in the stomach, then calmly fixing a pitcher of lemonade. Her only explanation is, “I didn’t like his looks.” Her silence is mostly to protect the 15-year-old black kid with whom she’d been sleeping but her real motivation for the crime was Zackery’s cruelty and coldness.
In the tradition of the best Southern writers, Henley manages to treat these circumstances with the gravity they require while also bringing a lightness of touch that coaxes the nutsy humor out of even the darkest moments.
Anxiety about the sisters’ predicament also is amped up by external factors like the life-threatening stroke suffered by their granddaddy and the death of Lenny’s beloved old horse Billy Boy, struck by lightning the previous night. Then there’s the family’s unhappy history — the girls’ father exited years ago and their mother hung both herself and the cat, making the national news, as Babe points out with a mix of pride and envy. That much of this scandal and woe is played for gentle laughs is a considerable part of the play’s seductive charm.
With their Mississippi drawl as thick as molasses, the actors work hard at their accents but the three leads nonetheless succeed in creating full-bodied, distinct characters, establishing the spiky sisterly closeness that binds them together and the shifting dynamics of their loyalties and rivalries.
Her shoulders hunched over and her mouth pinched with disappointment and disapproval, Dundas has some lovely bits of physical comedy and her moments of happiness are truly infectious. Willowy Paulson has strength, self-possession and a slightly superior detachment that give way when she reveals the destabilizing failure of Meg’s big plans. (She also delivered a priceless, in-character ad lib at the first press show, when a wayward pecan hit an audience member.) Best of all is gangly limbed Rabe, bringing a hint of mischief to her general guilelessness that makes her a disarming presence.
While act one ambles a little, Turner clearly is aware these characters need time and space to blossom into people we recognize, and the approach yields rewards in the more eventful second half.
The men definitely play second fiddle here, but Patch Darragh as Meg’s still-besotted former suitor brings a nice hangdog sweetness. And playing Babe’s green lawyer, Chandler Williams strikes an appealing balance between intoxication with his client that dates back to when she sold him a pound cake at a church event years before, and the dogged persistence of someone with a score to settle.
Only Jessica Stone as the Magraths’ shrewishly judgmental cousin is nudged too far into caricature. But even that choice never grates too harshly in a production that goes down as easily and flavorfully as comfort food.