Crimes of the Heart won Beth Henley the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, and the play remains her best-known and most successful work.
The Southern gothic comedy with its dark undertones is being revived at the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, even as another set-in-the-South play, Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, has transferred to the company’s Miami Beach Stage Door at the Byron Carlyle.
Like Ballyhoo, Crimes of the Heart is well acted, amusing and, when it should be, touching. The new production has been staged by Michael Leeds, who directs it with insight and grace, drawing effective performances from all six actors.
True, a few odd things happen (and not by Henley’s design), as when one woman deposits her dirty pantyhose on the kitchen table or another tosses the pink foam rollers she has just pulled from her hair onto the floor behind a “cot” that is a not-very-well-disguised coffee table. But since Crimes of the Heart is built around strange behavior, maybe those weird moments are of a piece with the rest of the play.
Set five years after Hurricane Camille hit in 1969, Crimes focuses on the three Magrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Miss. The oldest, Lenny (Meredith Bartmon), is the never-married caretaker of the women’s ailing grandfather, who brought them up after their mother committed suicide — and took the family cat along with her. Middle sister Meg (Faiza Cherie) is the wild one, a drinker and heavy smoker whose singing career has gone nowhere. And baby Babe Magrath Botrelle (Ursula Anderman) is in a bit of a pickle, having just shot her husband, a prominent lawyer.
The sisters’ snooty, bossy cousin, Chick (Erin Pittelman), pops in periodically to annoy them. Barnette Lloyd (Samuel Floyd), the goofy young lawyer who is defending Babe for reasons of his own, becomes the conduit for her to spill a sordid story. Doc Porter (Nicholas Wilder), a now-married father who loved and lost Meg, comes sniffing around again when he hears his ex has come home.
On its surface, Crimes of the Heart seems to be a comic study of the eccentric characters in a dysfunctional family. But though it’s no Streetcar Named Desire or Long Day’s Journey into Night, it did win the Pulitzer, and its deeper themes — relentless self-absorption, casual cruelty and abuse, the loneliness of the loveless — make spending a couple of hours with the Magrath sisters a richer experience.