FUNNY, SAD, DYSFUNCTIONAL AND CANDID
CRIMES OF THE HEART
by Beth Henley
Directed by Geoff Allen
for Galatea Theatre
at The Pumphouse, Takapuna, Auckland
From 21 Nov 2012 to 24 Nov 2012
Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 26 Nov 2012
Call me old fashioned but I do like a good play and Crimes of the Heart is certainly a good play – and has the credentials to prove it.
Completed in 1978 and initially unwanted for performance by the regional theatres in the US, by 1981 Crimes of the Heart had earned playwright Beth Henley the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play where she joined such names as Miguel Piñero, David Mamet and Terrence McNally, the prestigious Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play which she shared, in 1981, with Peter Shaffer's Amadeus and ultimately, also in '81, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Crimes of the Heart was adapted for the screen in 1986 and directed by Australian born Bruce Beresford where it notched up three Academy Award nominations including one for Henley for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie starred Diane Keaton as Lenny Magrath, Jessica Lange as Meg Magrath, Sissy Spacek as Babe Magrath Botrelle and playwright Sam Shepard, the 1979 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as Doc Porter.
While never quite revisiting the dizzy heights of 1981, Henley has continued to write quality scripts for the theatre - The Miss Firecracker Contest (1979), Sisters of the Winter Madrigal (2003) and Ridiculous Fraud (2007) – and for film – Nobody's Fool (1986) and Miss Firecracker (1989).
Henley chooses a consistent locale for her narratives – in particular for her early work – and most are set in the states of the Deep South. Crimes of the Heart, set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, can be seen as a blueprint of sorts for her later plays.
There is a contextual truth in her narrative and character creation that comes, I suspect, from not moving far from what she knows best. Henley, while born forty miles away in Jackson, was raised in Hazlehurst and it shows in the fine print and between the lines of her fine text. I'll talk about the importance of Southern music later but it's sufficient at this point to remind ourselves that Robert Johnson, king of the Mississippi delta blues singers, was born in Hazlehurst as was the fictional Emmett Honeycutt from Queer as Folk,which just goes to show that, in Hazlehurst, the line between reality and illusion is imprecisely drawn.
Henley's characters are often misfits and the Magrath sisters are no exception.
Henley etches fine female roles – always welcome in any theatre milieu – and her focus is almost always on familial love and loyalty, on gender identity and the restrictions society traditionally places on women; those boundaries which lock them permanently into a domestic environment and the roles that habitually accompany being in the home. Southern society with its socially conservative, evangelical Bible Belt formality and the attendant rigid stereotyping of its populace are rich pickings for Henley and the beneficiaries are, in due course, the artists for whom she writes and her audiences.
Crimes of the Heart is the story of three sisters each of whom has committed – you guessed it – ‘crimes of the heart'. They have all been raised by Granddaddy after Daddy left home when they were young'uns and Mama hanged herself along with the family pet. Now Granddaddy is in the hospital and the family has come back together to deal with the indisputable fact that sister Babe has shot her husband “cause I just didn't like his looks” and is on bail having been charged with his attempted murder.
Middle sister Meg has interrupted her career as a country singer in Hollywood to return home, and puts even more funk into the dysfunction that embodies this oddball clutch of chicks.
Granddaddy never appears but is a critical figure in the action of the play. The deceased Mama and the equally departed family cat are omnipresent too, and the fact that this all happens on elder sister Lenny's 30th birthday just adds to the wonderfully goofball feel that the narrative has. It ambles, races, meanders and sashays its naturalistic way through a 2 hours 35 minute journey that my ten year old son said “didn't seem anywhere near that long at all.”
The narrative, exotic and extraordinary though it is, exists principally to hang the characters on. There's a lot going on superficially but there's a lot lurking and festering under the surface too.
Lenny (Sarah Gallagher) is the stay-at-home, spinster older sister. She's thirty and it seems it's all over for her on the romantic front. She certainly thinks so and it's all the fault, she tells us often, of her withered ovary. It's Lenny's job to look after Granddaddy and to keep the home fires burning.
Gallagher's intelligent performance is rich in idiosyncrasy and, while there are times when it's possible to see the frump Lenny has allowed herself to become, Gallagher consistently finds the dignity and honour in her every situation. Mind you, I wouldn't want to be on her bad side if there's a tongue-lashing to be had or a broom within her reach, either!
Meg (Gina Timberlake) has come home from Hollywood where she has been, it seems, pursuing a singing career. She's the sister who left home to seek fame and fortune but she returns, unmarried, to less than a prodigal's welcome. There's more to Meg than meets the eye – we suspect this from the first moment we see her and again later when she alludes to her “helluva time over Christmas when she went nuts” – but what does meet the eye is enormously attractive and, at the same time, monumentally irritating.
Timberlake plays Meg to the hilt exposing her flaws and quirks as and when required but allowing us to find an odd affection for her too – all in our own time. As Babe reminds us, “Things have been hard for Meg. After all, she was the one who found Mama.”
Babe Magrath Botrelle (Breigh Fouhy) is the sister who left to get married, to Zackery Botrelle, a senator from Copiah County, no less. She's the victim of a brutal man who has abused her physically and verbally but who gets his comeuppance when she shoots him in the stomach after he ill-treats a black youth with whom she has been having an affair. Her complete lack of remorse is delicately sketched with lines like “after I shot him, I put the gun down on the piano bench and then I went out into the kitchen and made up a pitcher of lemonade.” A better portrait of battered woman syndrome I've yet to see in fiction.
Fouhy plays Babe with genuine sensitivity, allowing us to see through her naiveté to the bruised and damaged romantic that lies within. Hers is a clever portrayal as she is the link between the other two sisters. While they have difficulty communicating with each other, largely due to the jealousy Lenny feels about Meg being Granddaddy's favourite, they both relate easily to Babe and Fouhy facilitates this effectively.
Crimes of the Heart is essentially a three-hander but, in so saying, the three smaller roles are critical to both the narrative and the pace of the production. Doc Porter (Preston O'Brien), Chick Boyle (Natalie Beran) and Barnette (Alex Walker) each have a role to play in forwarding the storyline and each fulfils that role admirably. While the characters aren't as fleshed out as those of the sisters, O'Brien, Beran and Walker make every post a winner as each stakes a claim to a dubious place on the Magrath family tree.
Doc Porter is Meg's ex, the boyfriend she had when Hurricane Camille flattened almost everything along the Mississippi delta in 1969 and caused him injuries of such gravity that she couldn't cope and simply ran away. Doc's still in Hazlehurst – recovered, married, two kids – and the reunion of the two is both bittersweet and delicately handled by both actors.
Barnette is Babe's lawyer, gifted the task of defending her and at the same time exposing Zachary Botrelle in a sweet act of personal revenge. Walker is tremendously likable and finds an honest gaucheness in the man while impressing with his youthful knowledge of legal jiggery-pokery.
Chick is a cousin to the sisters. She's an absolute pain throughout and Beran balances this nicely against the play. She is, to some extent the honest – if self-interested – conscience of the play with lines like “Well this is just too awful. How I'm gonna continue to hold my head high in this community, I do not know. Did you get those pantyhose I asked you to?”Henley uses Chick to expose character facts that progress the story quickly and to fill in gaps for the audience, and Beran ticks these off like straightforward items on a to-do list.
Crimes of the Heart is a wonderful play. It's painted on a massive canvas and the challenges – principally its length and its cultural, period richness – are daunting. This production, directed by Geoff Allen, isn't perfect but it achieves a lot more than most and it would be carping to criticise such a sterling effort.
The pace is clipped and everyone knows – and does – their job. It's satisfying, funny, sad, dysfunctional and candid. There are moments of anger, moments of pathos, laughter, hysteria and all the ugliness that goes with a family laid bare in the most brutal way while under such acute strain. It is admirable theatre.
I've purposely left the ambience of the production until last.
With naturalistic work of this nature the setting and the texture is all. Crimes of the Heart wasn't a period piece when Henley wrote it but it is now. Recreating the period is critical because there's always, as Shakespeare reminds us in Hamlet, a special someone in the audience who knows the period, who lived in Mississippi, who was alive at the time and who can see through every little thing that's wrong. That's the critic's job too, of course, so here goes.
The Pumphouse is always conducive to good theatre. It disappears when the lights go down, becomes an empty box and seems timeless.
The set, attributed to The Amazing Marko Nella, is a knickknack hoarder's paradise. Touched with tans and gold, a central timber table and five wooden chairs give a sense of homely 70's sophistication and the chintz covers and glass-shaded lamps add to the overall atmosphere. It's period-perfect as are most of the costumes – footwear is always the most complex retro item to achieve – and it's very gratifying.
This atmosphere is supported by pre-show music that's evocative of place and time: a radio plays country music with mostly audible commentary – there's mention of Biloxi, Tammy Wynette and Jackson County – and songs by Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash; not the obvious ones but ‘I Still Miss Someone' written by Cash and brother Roy and released in 1968, and others of similar ilk.
Everything accurately placed, researched, and in its place. I found it delightfully rewarding. Then later there's ‘Ring of Fire', quietly, an afterthought, and Rhodes and Reynolds 1958 hit ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles' as play out music. The sound choices couldn't have been better.
As a piece of art, the production is just like the women who people it: there are a dozens of moments where Henley's text sings in the hands of these actors and a few – mercifully few – moments where the wind goes out of the production's sales. These rare moments don't detract too much from the effectiveness of the production and everyone moves on quickly.
All in all, it's a most satisfying evening at the theatre, and in more ways than one. It made me think outside the box. It made me ask whether much has changed in the south: racially, politically, culturally, socially. The US has a black president but it seems that a good proportion of southern rednecks haven't got their heads around this yet. There's an increase in gun sales, people joining local militia and there is talk in Texas of secession from the union.
Babe, after all, had an affair with a young African American in 1978. Not acceptable then, barely so now. Maybe Doc has the answer after all when he suggests to Meg that they go out in his truck to “just look at the moon.” Maybe we should all do this more than once in awhile.
Henley has written a magnificent play that has stood the test of time. Galatea Theatre has breathed new life into it – and I thank them sincerely for that.
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