Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Crimes of the Heart at South Coast Repertory

Jennifer Lyon, Kate Rylie and Blair Sams in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, at South Coast Repertory May 7 - June 6, 2010.  Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
Thanks to my fabulous friends at The OC Gazette and at South Coast Repertory, I’ve had the opportunity to see some incredible plays this year. Until recently, my visits to the Repertory were only annually, to see A Christmas Carol. But this year, I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen four productions—Fences, In a Garden, Doctor Cerberus, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, which runs through June 6th.  

Seeing these productions has made me realize how unique, and how underappreciated, the art of the play is. Plays are so different from my beloved musicals. Actors do not spontaneously break into song to help narrate the story, there are no flashy, choreographed dance sequences, no sweeping symphonies to note the mood and guide the audience’s feelings. Even reading a play is a unique experience. Unlike novels, settings are not used in plays to paint the mood of a scene, and they can’t be described in flowery paragraphs. Feelings cannot be explained; instead, every thought has to be expressed tangibly, every word has to be deliberate. Yes, plays have music and lights and sets, but those things tend to contextualize the story rather than help tell it. The responsibility of a play’s storytelling falls almost completely to the dialogue. Yet, a play can’t be too verbose, emotions must feel organic, and words must seem spontaneous.

Kate Rylie and Jennifer Lyon in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, at South Coast Repertory May 7 - June 6, 2010.  Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

Crimes of the Heart, written by Beth Henley, was my favorite of the four productions. It tells the story of the three Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, as they reunite in the face of family adversity—their grandfather is on his deathbed at the local hospital, and the youngest sister, Babe, has just shot her husband in the stomach. Add to that a dead horse, an abandoned lover (benevolently played by Nathan Baesel), an obnoxiously meddling cousin (Tessa Auberjonois, who steals every scene she’s in), and a smitten young lawyer (played with hilarious intensity by Kasey Mahaffy), and ya’ll have got some good old-fashioned southern drama on your hands.

Blair Sams and Tessa Auberjonois in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, at South Coast Repertory May 7 - June 6, 2010.  Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

“It’s a human need. To talk about our lives. It’s an important human need,” Meg tells Babe in the play. And you will love listening to the Magrath sisters talk about their lives. The three lead actors—Blair Sams (Lenny), Jennifer Lyon (Meg), and Kate Rylie (Babe) —had me completely convinced that together they actually had endured all the drama of the Magrath family. While the characters all seem a little unhinged at times, the darker sides of their personalities are always complimented by a lighthearted, humorous argument over who ate Lenny’s birthday candy or why Meg got a store-bought dress for her senior prom. Drinking Cokes and gossiping while sitting on the kitchen counter like schoolgirls without a care in the world distracted the sisters—and distracted the audience—from dwelling on their deteriorating relationships, despairing careers, and tainted reputations. And with that token southern flair for drama that would have made Scarlett O’Hara proud, these sassy southern women almost—almost—convince you that it’s perfectly acceptable to respond to conflict by putting your head in the oven or shooting your husband. The tragedy and comedy are delivered with balance and heart.

Kasey Mahaffy and Kate Rylie in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, at South Coast Repertory May 7 - June 6, 2010.  Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.

As the play starts, Lenny’s just telegrammed for her sister Meg to leave behind her failed Hollywood dreams and to come home and help her with the family affairs. Lenny is the oldest of the sisters at thirty, and you can sense her maternal qualities and desire for responsibility even though she resents her duties and acts like a whiny teenager as much as a sensible older sibling. Meg is the middle sister at twenty-seven. A natural beauty, she keeps a cigarette lighter in her bra and her hair is disheveled in every scene; she’s a hot mess, and my favorite of the three women. Babe is twenty-four, doe-eyed, nice as pie, and fresh out of prison on bail. Her crime is what unfolds much of the sisters’ history in front of our eyes—all the childhood jealousies that have festered into resentment, the effects of their mother’s tragic death on each of the women, and the lingering consequences of their unsuccessful relationships with men. But the crime also unfolds and ultimately restores the sisters’ affection for each other. 

These sisters might all be a little bit crazy, but they’re also real. Each of them, at one point or another, will remind you of someone you know. They have a fierce, protective love for each other, which doesn’t mean they don’t fight about boys and candy. That’s what a family’s love is…it’s messy. It’s expressed with ill-timing and ineptness. But it’s real. And for a work of fiction to come alive on stage and convincingly demonstrate that is an amazing thing. 

Crimes of the Heart is showing at SCR through June 6th, 2010. For ticket information visit South Coast Repertory online or call the box office (714) 708-5555.
- Lisa Birle
Check out Lisa's blog Impressions

Get a sneak peak of scenes from Crimes of the Heart...

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