2 hours 35 minutes (including one intermission)
Drama / Dark Comedy / Mature
It’s easy to see why Three Sisters Theatre has chosen to perform Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley. Plays with four meaty female roles are not that common. Even less so in 1979, when the first version of the play premiered in Louisville, Kentucky.
There’s Lenny McGrath (Robin Guy), a repressed spinster who’s been intimidated into caring for their paternalistic, brow-beating grandfather. Her cousin Chick Boyle (Linda Webster) is a powerful social-climbing opportunist who manipulates others through gossip and shaming. Meg McGrath (Cindy Beaton) has forced herself to be strong to leave hometown Hazelhurst, Mississippi to seek her fortune in Hollywood. Babe McGrath (Shawna Pasini) – the youngest sister – is stuck in an upwardly-mobile marriage arranged by her grandfather and has rebelled by shooting her physically abusive husband.
All four actors sink their teeth into these roles for all they’re worth. I predict acting award nominations.
From this brief précis, you might think Henley has set up a standard criminal-as-victim plot. But she does not let the audience off that easily.
Crimes of the Heart is the darkest comedy I’ve ever laughed at.
Crimes of the Heart challenges liberal notions of the inherent nobility of the oppressed. Having stirred our sympathies for the McGrath sisters, she twists the plot, and our feelings. Abused Babe seduces an underage black boy. In the past Meg seduced a local beau, Doc Porter (Terry Duncan), into staying with her during a fierce hurricane, only to abandon him when his leg was crushed. Lenny has broken off a relationship with a good man and abandoned a real opportunity for love and happiness to wallow in self-pity. Even Babe’s knight in shining armour, young lawyer Barnette Lloyd (Nicholas Dave Amott), has ulterior motives (revenge and unprofessional longings for his client). Henley ties our sympathies in knots.
Given such weighty matters, it’s no surprise that Crimes of the Heart has many poignant moments, like Lenny singing “Happy Birthday to Me” to herself in front of a candle mounted on a cookie. Or Babe describing being struck so hard she lost consciousness. Meg encourages Babe to talk about why she shot her husband, “To talk about our lives… [is] a basic human need.”
Crimes of the Heart has it’s fair share of quotable lines. “There are plenty of sane reasons to shoot a person.” When Babe confesses her affair with a 15-year-old black boy, Meg says, “I am amazed, Babe. I am completely amazed. I didn’t even know you were a liberal.”
Crimes of the Heart is the darkest comedy I’ve ever laughed at. And yes I did laugh, often, as did the audience. There’s one situation that Henley sets up where two of the characters burst into laughter about the grave medical condition of a relative. The laughter was so infectious that the audience laughed heartily (but guiltily) at a situation that even the characters admit “isn’t funny.” Before they erupt in laughter again, and again.
Critical reaction to the play seems to hinge on one point. Is Babe insane? Is she responsible for her actions? Consider her seduction of underage black boy, Willy J. What would the audience’s reaction be to a white male seducing a 15-year-old black girl? Positive reviews tend to excuse the McGraths’ behaviour by saying that they’re nuttier than a fruitcake. But Meg tells Babe, “You’re not insane. You’re as sane as anyone walking the streets of Hazelhurst, Mississippi.”
I’m going to side with Meg. I don’t think Babe, or her sisters, are insane. I think she’s responsible for her crimes of the heart. And one of those crimes is no laughing matter.
Crimes of the Heart (prod. Three Sisters Theatre Company) is playing at The Gladstone Theatre (910 Gladstone Ave). Friday to Saturday February 10–11 and Tuesday to Saturday February 14–18 at 7:30pm. Matinees Saturday and Sunday February 11 and 12 as well as Saturday February 18 at 2:30pm. Tickets cost $22–38 and are available online a www.thegladstone.ca. Students PWYC at the door.