Produced by Step Up Productions, Chicago
Three Sisters’ Lives Make for One Dark Comedy
This month in Chicago, playgoers can get a double-helping of dark comedies about southern families. The 1939 play The Little Foxes, about the thieving rich is playing at the Goodman, and at the Athenaeum itinerant company Step Up Productions presents Crimes of the Heart, a story written forty years later about a much poorer strata of Mississippi society. But while the three Hubbard siblings in The Little Foxes amuse audiences with their audacious depravity, the three Magrath sisters in Crimes of the Heart are basically decent people trying to do their best despite their own foibles and the absurdities of a cruel world, which started falling apart for them when their mother hanged herself along with their cat. Beth Henley’s comedy is kinder than Lillian Hellman’s, but its added heart makes it no less shrewd and dramatic.
The first sound from this production to greet us is Matthew Chapman’s selection of love songs from female stars such as Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette. They’re appropriate choices, since much of the Magrath sisters’ struggling is due to bad, unrequited, or non-existent romances. Our first image is that of the oldest sister, Lenny (Sarah-Jayne Ashenhurst), sitting alone in her kitchen, attempting to place a single birthday candle into a cookie. Turning thirty with a dying grandfather in the hospital, a horse that just got struck by lightning, and no particularly close relationships makes this a bad day, and when annoying, superior cousin Chick (Lindsey Pearlman) shows up, it gets a whole lot worse. The youngest sister, Babe (Elizabeth Antonucci) has just been arrested for shooting her state senator husband in the gut. He’ll live, but Babe isn’t cooperating with her attorney. Nonetheless, she made bail, and Chick will bring her over soon.
But before Babe arrives, the middle sister, Meg (Amanda Powell) unexpectedly drops in. Meg had been a professional singer, at least for a little while, and last anybody heard she still is. But that was a year ago, and since then, she’s put her artistic dreams on hold for a position filling out payment forms at a dogfood factory. Upset by this turn in her life, what brought Meg back to Hazlehurst was apparently a hope of rekindling her relationship with Doc (Drew Johnson), a high school boyfriend who was injured in Hurricane Camille because he stayed with her when she refused to evacuate, and has since married and fathered two children. When Babe finally shows up, she’s either in denial about or resigned to the severity of the situation, and claims she can’t defend herself because she has to protect somebody. But her lawyer, Barnette (Will Crouse) has a crush on her, and is determined to get her off, and take revenge on her corrupt, wicked husband.
Though Babe is the sister with the most at stake, Henley wrote so that her dilemma does not overshadow those of her sisters. While Barnette is off researching and meeting with other lawyers, Babe and Meg decide to rekindle Lenny’s love life. Ashenhurst plays Lenny with a delicate balance of anxiety, tenderness, and sense of responsibility that naturally unravels as the play heaps more stress upon her. As Meg, Powell is bold and appealingly direct, but with an undercurrent of deep sadness and secretiveness. Meg smokes as a form of slow suicide, and has engaged in risky behavior to prove she isn’t afraid of death ever since she found her mother’s body. Babe is spacey, and definitely the least mature of the sisters, but Antonucci makes her likeable by demonstrating playfulness, benevolence, and a great deal of understanding for others. Crouse, Johnson, and Pearlman all do well in supporting roles; Pearlman gets the biggest laughs with Chick’s ironically vulgar arrogance, and Crouse as Barnett’s eager affection triggers a desire in Babe to take back her life. Though it is a stylistic choice that the characters are played a little broad, the actors all have a keen sense of both comedy and pathos.
Raquel Adorno’s costumes also contribute significantly to the characterization of each sister. We learn a lot from Lenny’s possibly Chekhovian schoolmarm vest, Meg’s country star blouse and jeans and tastefully sexy black skirt, and Babe’s breezy pink dress. Director Brad Akin uses his talented and appropriately adorned actors, along with a worn, but clean, kitchen set by Sarah JHP Watkins, to build a world where normal people struggle valiantly to remain dignified and sane, even on a really bad day. Crimes of the Heart is about people who accept responsibility for how their own flaws led them into regrettable situations, but manage as best they can. Only at exactly the right moments do they drop their composure, and erupt or collapse in extreme emotion. Such dark subject matter cannot properly be called a feel-good story, and yet, the ability of the characters to endure is heartening, and allows us to laugh.
Reviewed May 12, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Crimes of the Heart’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N Southport Ave, Chicago.