'Crimes of the Heart'

Theater has a persistent fascination for plays about three crazy sisters. (Think Chekhov, Shakespeare, Woody Allen.) This weekend, two such plays opened in the Rogue Valley: "August: Osage County," by Tracy Letts, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" at Camelot Theatre in Talent.

Just as three disparate sisters seem to be a theater staple, so, too, are ditsy Southern women. "Crimes of the Heart" gives us both — and the men who drive them crazy.

Roger Ebert described the 1986 movie version as "somewhere between parody and melodrama, between the tragic and the goofy." And Camelot director Paul R. Jones certainly knows how to play up the absurd situations and humor in this spectacularly dysfunctional family.

What Jones seems to have missed is that "Crimes of the Heart" goes deeper than that. Set in Mississippi in 1974, "Crimes" is also about women's roles in a rapidly changing South. Each of these sisters is breaking the rules in some way — with unexpected consequences. Characters here don't have to be played broad or frantic. Play them as written and they are already over the top, hilariously funny. Overemphasize the silliness and you lose the poignancy.

As "Crimes of the Heart" opens, the three Magrath sisters are having a spectacularly bad day. Babe (Sarah Gore), the youngest, has shot her husband, the most prominent lawyer in town, in the stomach. Meg (Renée Hewitt), the wild one, has limped home from a failed singing career and a nervous breakdown in Hollywood. Lenny (Presila Quinby), the eldest, who stayed at home to take care of Old Granddaddy, is becoming restive at being everyone's dutiful "good girl."

The girls and their mother came to live with their grandfather in Hazlehurst, Miss., when their father abandoned the family. Shortly thereafter, their mother hanged herself in circumstances bizarre enough to have made national news. Granddaddy raised the girls — we don't hear an awful lot about Grandma. And Granddaddy was responsible for the roles these women took on as they became adults.

Lenny didn't have the looks or the charm to be groomed for a husband. Besides, at some point it was discovered that she had a "shriveled ovary" and couldn't have children. Lenny's role was "spinster" and "caretaker."

Meg as a young teenager found their mother's body. From her bitterness, we also get the feeling that their father sexually abused her before he left. She was not only the "bad girl" but she was beautiful, vibrant and she could sing. Granddaddy spoiled her and pushed her to have a career. The result is the distracted narcissist we meet at the beginning of the play, careless of other people's belongings or feelings.

Babe is impulsive, charmingly childlike, and so immature that she seems frozen at the emotional age of 12. Granddaddy, sensing Babe's vulnerability and wanting to make sure she is protected, pushed her at the age of 18 to marry the richest, most socially prominent boy in town. He turned out to be physically and emotionally abusive, sending Babe to the hospital frequently with a string of ugly injuries.

But that's not the real reason she shot him. As the play develops, Babe's predicament becomes, if possible, even worse.

With Granddaddy in the hospital at death's door, each of the sisters hesitantly breaks out of her assigned role and begins to move in a new direction, haphazardly and with assorted hilarious missteps.

"Crimes" was Beth Henley's first professionally produced play and it garnered a Pulitzer Prize, a New York Drama Critics Award and numerous Tony award nominations after its Broadway opening in 1981.

Camelot's production is, as usual, meticulous and satisfying. The cast, including Linda Otto as the bossy neighboring cousin, Roy Rains Jr. as Meg's jilted suitor, and Peter Wickliffe as Babe's determined defense attorney, all do an astonishing job.

Once again, Don Zastoupil has designed an intricate set in Camelot's small space. He's given us a kitchen right out of the rural South. Michael Maisonneuve has designed equally evocative costumes. The technical crew of Brian O'Connor and Bart Grady again provide professional sound, video and lighting.

"Crimes of the Heart" may not be perfect, but it is incredibly good. It is a fine adieu to the old feed store and the perfect transition into Camelot's new space, expected to open in June. It shouldn't be missed.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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