How is it possible to laugh so hard, and so often, when witnessing so many miseries heaped upon a good country family? That's the gift of playwright Beth Henley whose 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Crimes of the Heart," is enjoying a successful run off-Broadway, thanks to the unexpectedly fine directing of husky-voiced Kathleen Turner.
"Crimes," often described as a Southern Gothic tale a la Eudora Welty, is about three not-too-bright sisters who can't seem to catch a break. Aptly titled, this comic tragedy, or tragic comedy, is a study of three exquisitely drawn characters who live the life of the walking wounded.
Lenny, who wasn't blessed in the looks department, is the oldest and mousiest of the three. Her sense of responsibility has kept her rooted in the old house of her youth, more scared to move on than to stay put. Played with an intimate understanding of her character by Jennifer Dundas, the dowdy Lenny is celebrating her 30th birthday -- alone-- and lights some candles as she sings Happy Birthday to herself three times.
Not wanting to get caught in this embarrassing act, Lenny listens for an approaching car that will bring home her sister Babe who is being released from prison on bail. The youngest of the three, Babe has just shot her husband in the stomach three times, and "I just didn't like his looks" is all she'll say at the moment.
This is not the first time the family has been beset by tragedy or scandal. In their backwater town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, where everybody knows everybody's business, middle sister Meg ran off to California several years before after she discovered their mother swinging from a noose, along with the family cat.
Sarah Paulson, recently seen in the TV series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," has created a vivid Meg who drags out her twangy Southern accent, drags on her countless cigarettes, and struts her shapely body before former boyfriend, Doc Porter, even though he's married now. Born to be a star, Meg now has to deal with the ultimate discovery that she's just ordinary. It is this return to the root of all evil to be with her sisters that enables her to come clean with her own demons once and for all.
Babe, innocently portrayed by Lily Rabe, seems the most naï¿½ve of the three, yet harbors, perhaps, the deepest secrets of all. Distractedly brushing her long blond tresses as if she hadn't a care in the world, her glazed over expression cunningly hides her real motivations for the shooting. With eerie detachment, she describes how she made lemonade with lots of sugar as her husband lay bleeding on the kitchen floor.
Ironically, Henley's play was rejected by several producers before it won the Great American Play Contest. Afterwards, it became a hot property, was staged off-Broadway in 1980, and then again on Broadway where it ran for nearly a year and a half. The lure of "Crimes," often produced in community and regional theaters, is the appeal of the characters who have such disordered lives, make such dreadful decisions, yet manage to find hope through love and humor.
The lure, however, is not just for audiences -- it's for actors as well. The twists and turns of the sisters' stories, and the personal growth they experience, provide plentiful fodder for actors who want to stretch and take risks. A female director gets to do the same, and Kathleen Turner has done just that. Uplifting, though not casual, "Crimes of the Heart" shows us we can go home again. We just can't expect it to ever be the same as when we left.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus