By Kathy Harper
Director Jay Norton seems to have an affinity with plays featuring strong women characters and set in the South. Over past B2B seasons he has directed ‘Steel Magnolias’, ‘Always a Bridesmaid’, ‘Savannah Sipping Society’ and this summer – Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley.
Henley has created three strong sisters in Lennie, Meg and Babe – characters that have faced a troubling life since their father left, and their mother committed suicide taking the family cat with her. Their overbearing grandfather took them in as children and it should be no surprise that they are emotionally unstable – they do and say ridiculous things; yet Henley never ridicules them. The play (which Henley loosely based on Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters’) is now over 40 years old but cannot be considered dated as, in addition to its more light-hearted themes, it also deals with very timely issues such as domestic violence, mental illness and racism. The sisters seamlessly pinball between tragedy and comedy.
Lenny (played by Sherri Wade) is the eldest Magrath sister. She has never left Hazlehurst, Miss., and cares for Granddaddy who is now in hospital following a stroke. It’s her 30th birthday and she tries to bring some happiness to the occasion by putting a candle on a cookie and singing to herself. The youngest sister Babe (Alyssa Burger) has just been accused of shooting her bigwig husband in the stomach because she doesn’t like the way he looks. Middle sister Meg (Maggie Bugg) arrives home from California – where she has been supposedly enjoying a singing career – to help Lennie deal with Babe’s predicament.
Add to the mix Chick (Allena Moore) their first cousin – a typical small-town gossip, who has just stopped by to give everyone a hard time.
There are two male characters: Doc (James Matthews) Meg’s old boyfriend who has become permanently disabled five years earlier because of her scatterbrained idea to be out in Hurricane Camille; and local lawyer Barnett (played by Cole Landry) as a slightly smitten lawyer set to defend Babe. All three do a good job of their supporting characters.
Jay Norton has cast three actresses that can certainly pass for sisters, and who provide very strong performances. Their confrontations with overlapping and increasingly louder dialogue are hilarious. Sherri Wade gives Lenny a beautifully nuanced touch – being tightly bound and vulnerable, resentful of Meg, protective of Babe and finally, when pushed too far by Chick, she surprises even herself. Alyssa Burger is a gentle and loopy Babe – innocent and carefree – but her story about why she shot her husband underlines how damaged her life has become - and is very moving. Maggie Bugg’s Meg is a fascinating contrast between being free-spirited and overly self-absorbed. She glibly lies – about her so-called singing career – when in fact, she has had a breakdown and been institutionalized. Meg tends to do everything to excess: smoking, drinking, men. It’s a mesmerizing performance.
Lorna McLellan is to be congratulated for her costumes. She has put Babe in soft, feminine pastels, sling-back shoes and pearl necklace. Meg is dressed in bright, bold colors, flowing pants, large earrings and high heels. Lennie’s practical, mannish look – cotton shirt and pants, plain skirt and top, underlines her sensible, spinster image.
The final tableau is beautiful and moving. The three sisters gather around a huge birthday cake asking Lenny about her birthday wish and the vision she claims to have seen. “I’m not sure, but it wasn’t forever; it wasn’t for every minute. Just this one moment and we were all laughing”. And as the lights turn golden and dim, the word that comes to mind is ‘hope’.
Is that not a very worthwhile sentiment for the Magrath sisters, and for us all?