Crimes of the Heart

Written in 1978, when the feminist movement had woken us all up to the extraordinary fact that women could, and frequently do, like each other, Crimes of the Heart is about sisterhood. Literal sisterhood, as opposed to the metaphorical kind explored in other dramas of roughly the same period, such as Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias. We're familiar with this genre — wacky, soft-focus Southern Gothic — but Beth Henley's script has an unexpectedness and deadpan humor that keep you absorbed, laughing and empathetic, and that leavens the sentimentality.

The three women at the center of Crimes of the Heart are not only having — as one of them comments — a very bad day, they've had a pretty hard time of it altogether. Their father vanished when they were young; their mother gained national notoriety for hanging the old family cat and then herself. When the play opens, Lenny, the good girl of the family, is celebrating her birthday alone, jamming a candle into a cookie and making a wish or two because no one else has remembered the date or thought to order a cake for her. Lenny is responsible for the girls' ancient grandfather, who's currently in the hospital. She is also about to learn that the beloved horse she's had for twenty years has been killed by lightning. Enter flamboyant Meg, the sister who knows how to suction up all the available attention in a room and who's been in Hollywood in search of fame as a singer. Meg has returned because their youngest sibling, Babe, is about to be released from jail. Babe shot her nasty state-senator husband because, she said flatly, she didn't like his looks.

Barnette Lloyd is the young lawyer hired to represent Babe; when he comes to the house, he reveals that he's already in love with her because she once sold him a pound cake at the county fair. Brian J. Brooks makes Barnette kind, real and intelligent enough to temper the whimsy of the situation. And Nils Swanson charms as Doc Porter, the man whose affair with Meg was destroyed by her refusal to evacuate during Hurricane Camille. They stayed in place; the roof fell in, shattering his leg; and free-spirited Meg took off for California. The only two-dimensional character is Chick Boyle, a cousin, and the epitome of trivial, gossipy, self-absorbed and self-righteous Southern womanhood. But Susan Scott makes this intrusive creature far too entertaining to ignore.

Terry Dodd is that rare director who really likes working with strong, interesting women. As a result, the area's best actresses tend to make themselves available to him when he's casting. For this production, he's scored a triple. So talented are the women who play the McGrath sisters that I really couldn't tell if Henley's play had stood the test of time far more brilliantly than I'd have expected, or if it simply seemed wonderful because the performances were so rich. Laura Norman is the center of the action as Lenny. She makes herself look frumpy and uncoordinated, a drab, soft-edged woman filled with huge, inchoate yearnings — yearnings that somehow fill your own heart as you watch her struggle. Megan VanDeHey creates a Meg who's vivid and brash, with a tough-as-nails swagger that doesn't hide her profound insecurity. Always wearing gloves and slightly toed-in, Emily Paton Davis's Babe sounds so sweetly and transparently reasonable that you really understand — at least for the moment — why she had to make herself a jug of fresh lemonade immediately after shooting her husband (she was thirsty), and then offered him a glass as he writhed on the carpet (it was the mannerly thing to do). And you can't bring yourself to feel a second's censoriousness when she reveals that she's been sleeping with a fifteen-year-old kid, whose dog she took in and who happens to be black. Which means she can't tell the full story of the shooting, because she has to protect him.

Norman, VanDeHey and Davis don't just give stellar individual performances; they work well together. As different as these three women are, you have no trouble believing that they grew up in the same household, bickering and conspiring in the same way year after year; that for each of them, the smell of her sisters' skin and hair is as familiar as the smell of her own; that they understand each other's tics and torments so well that their mockery can be as merciless as their mutual love is unbreakable.