“Crimes of the Heart” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

For some time, there’s been an awareness – and a concern – among performing arts professionals that women artists are underrepresented. We’ve all read about the paltry percentage of major studio films directed by women, or featuring dynamic leading roles for women, so much so that the success of Wonder Woman is being hailed – with wonder – as a potential breakthrough.

In the theatre, too, women have been fighting to be heard, as playwrights, directors, and actors. Studies have documented the paucity of plays written by women being produced at the nation’s theatres, and the disproportionate number of good male roles versus female ones.

However, for a brief period in the 1980s, it seemed as if the trend might run the other way. A number of plays, written by women, with juicy roles for female actors, made a splash on Broadway, and from there spread to theatres across the country. Marsha Norman’s Night, Mother; Nell Dunn’s Steaming; and Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, The Heidi Chronicles, and The Sisters Rosensweig are a few of the titles which spring to mind.

One of the earliest and best was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart. The author’s first professionally-produced play, it debuted at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979, opened on Broadway in 1981, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was later made into a star-studded film for which Ms Henley wrote the script and was nominated for an Oscar.

Robin Long, top, Megan Gainey, and Jennifer Cannon.
Photo: Steven Georges

The three Magrath sisters have gathered at the family home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. “Family home” in this case is the house belonging to their grandfather, who took the girls in after their daddy left and their mom – Granddaddy’s daughter – hanged herself and the family cat. Granddaddy is now in the hospital and things don’t look good for him. But Granddaddy’s physical problems are the least of the siblings’ worries.

As the play opens, Babe (Megan Gainey) has just been sprung from jail after shooting her husband because she “didn’t like his looks.” Meg (Robin Long), who’s been living in Hollywood pursuing a singing career, returns with her career dreams in tatters, and having survived a stay in rehab after attempting suicide. Lenny (Jennifer Cannon), the oldest and ostensibly the sanest, the one who’s been taking care of Granddaddy, frets that she’ll never get a man due to a shrunken ovary, and celebrates her birthday – which everyone else has forgotten – by sticking a candle in a cookie and making a wish.

L-R: Jennifer Cannon, Alexandra Wright, and Megan Gainey.
Photo: Steven Georges

Barging in and out of the house – and the sisters’ lives – is their overbearing cousin Chick (Alexandra Wright), who insists on wearing “extra petite” pantyhose, despite evidence to the contrary (performed stage left in full view of the audience) that it’s definitely not her size.

To call the female roles in Crimes of the Heart “juicy” would be an understatement of the first order, and director Luke Yankee has wisely encouraged his actresses to go a little crazy – which is exactly what’s needed.

James Louis Wagner and Robin Long.
Photo: Steven Georges

The lunacy isn’t all reserved for the ladies, though. Doc (James Louis Wagner) was Meg’s beau and rashly gave in to her refusal to evacuate during Hurricane Camille five years previously. The result was a shattered leg and a permanent limp. But even that doesn’t stop Doc from stepping out on his wife and kids for a night in his truck with the newly-returned Meg.

Wallace Angus Bruce and Megan Gainey.
Photo: Steven Georges

Perhaps the daffiest of all is Barnette (Wallace Angus Bruce), a young lawyer engaged to represent Babe, with whom he’s been smitten since she sold him a piece of pound cake at a church bazaar some years ago. He takes her case not only to help her, but also to pursue his “personal vendetta” against her husband, whom he vows to drag through every bit of mud he can find. Mr. Bruce’s performance may be subdued, but is nonetheless emblematic of a fine madness.

As is always the case at International City Theatre, the tech elements are splendid: the set by Pete Hickok, the lighting by Stacy McKenney, the costumes by Kim DeShazo, and the sound by Dave Mickey.

L-R: Robin Long, Jennifer Cannon, and Megan Gainey.
Photo: Steven Georges

Ms Henley’s delightful play – sharply funny yet profoundly moving – and Mr. Yankee’s fluid direction celebrate women and sisterhood, and make for a fine (and slightly mad) night at the theatre.

Crimes of the Heart
Written by Beth Henley
Directed by Luke Yankee

Through June 25

International City Theatre
300 East Seaside Way
Long Beach, CA 90802
Tickets: 562-436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org


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