By Philip Pearce
BETH HENLEY’S Crimes of the Heart deals with tragedies of America’s Southland but just can’t seem to take them seriously. The Magrath sisters, Lenny, Babe and Meg of Hazlehurst, Mississippi are embroiled in family deception, infertility, the sexual abuse of a minor, an attempted murder, a botched suicide, you name it. Yet their underlying buoyancy and ditsy sisterly love seem to lift them blithely above the kinds of nasty domestic conflicts that would wreak havoc in the hands of a William Inge or Tennessee Williams heroine.
It’s summed up beautifully in a key moment when oldest and youngest sisters Lenny and Babe steel themselves to deliver a piece of tragic news to middle sister Meg, who finally shows up to confess that she wishes fervently that their oppressive ailing Old Granddaddy would stop oppressing them and just go into a coma. Babe and Lenny’s bad news is that Granddaddy has just gone into a coma—a fact they can’t manage to blurt out through their screams of hysterical laughter.
The play offers plum roles for its three leading women and a couple of nice sharp moments for a fourth, and The Listening Place does full justice to Henley’s Pulitzer-winning dark comedy.
The cast is wonderful.
As senior sister Lenny, a woman who lives in a continuing suppressed tizzy of self-doubt and blasted hopes, Katy Day is as touching as she is funny. Her best of many fine moments comes when, having philosophically accepted her barrenness, plus the grinding drudgery of caring for a thankless and demanding grandparent, having faced the family disgrace of a sister imprisoned for attempted murder, she works herself into an extended shrieking tirade against whoever has eaten most of her box of birthday chocolates.
Middle sister Meg, returning from California to help the frantic Lenny keep accused youngest sister Babe from the county prison farm, is a deliciously cool and collected Kalyn Shubnell. Her composed glamour girl exterior conceals a shaky claim of the lead role in a forthcoming Hollywood musical and an inspired gift for lying.
As the beleaguered Babe, Brittney Buffo is blandly and endearingly amoral. She keeps claiming she only shot Zackery in the stomach because she didn’t like his looks and then changing the subject. Under pressure she admits she’s withholding information in order to protect somebody. Finally, in a rush of beautifully acted mounting excitement she explains she pulled the trigger because… But there are two more performances to find that out for yourself.
Then there is Cousin Chick Boyles (“Don’t call me chicken!”). With frightening assurance, Anne Mitchell presents the kind of relentlessly helpful relative who offers up gobs of vitriolic gossip in the guise of comfort and sympathy.
Let’s face it, this show belongs to the women, but Richard Boynton and Matthew T. Pavellas are around to lend able support, Boynton as Meg’s old boyfriend Doc Porter and Pavellas as a young lawyer named Barnett Lloyd, who is retained by Babe and soon takes more than a passing professional interest in her case.
Michael Bond’s direction is brisk and funny, but never at the expense of the darker implications of the story. If the production could be improved, it might be in a more helpful placing of actor/readers at their music stands. Characters closely and even intimately connected in the plot sometimes speak across a large gap which they sometimes need to cross in order to touch each other or hand over props.
It’s an afternoon of dazzling domestic fireworks to be repeated Saturday at 2 pm at the offices of The Salinas Californian, and 1:30 pm Sunday at the Monterey Museum of Art.