Family tensions come home to roost in this staging of an American classic at the Old Fitz
It’s 1974, in the heart of Mississippi. Babe, the youngest of the three Magrath sisters, just shot her husband in the stomach. Why? She “didn’t like his looks.”
Billed as a Southern gothic tragicomedy, Crimes of the Heart is focused on the lives of three sisters: Lenny (played here by Laura Pike), whose life has been subsumed under caring for her sick grandfather; Meg (Amanda McGregor), who fled their small town for Hollywood and dreams of being a singer; and Babe (Renae Small), the sweetheart would-be killer. The sisters are back in their childhood home after Babe’s arrest. As Babe and her lawyer (Caleb Alloway) work on her case, the sisters face old family secrets.
Crimes of the Heart is best known as a 1986 film helmed by Australian director Bruce Beresford and starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek, but it began its life as a play by Beth Henley; it picked up a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The Pulitzer is awarded to distinguished plays “that deal with American life” and for its time the play is reasonably advanced: it features candid discussions of domestic violence, suicide and mental illness, and focuses on the victimisation of women in the American South, and in Western society more broadly.
Times have changed since the play and even the film were released. Its bite has dulled over the years and it feels tame rather than revolutionary. Its politics are quaint in the modern world; there are casual references to statutory rape and the worth of women being tied to men that really chafe in 2017.
Still, director Janine Watson has infused the production with a relatable and appealing warmth. In a cozy, working-class 1970s kitchen (designed by Jonathan Hindmarsh) the story plays out at a cracking pace, which helps to keep the more staid plot points lively and the audience engaged.
The downside to this is that the play’s more important moments are frequently glossed over; a character has barely taken hold of a sheaf of medical records before she reacts to them, and the women seem to be less guided by internal thought processes than by stage directions and blocking.
The production is at its strongest in the second act, when there are more opportunities to have the three sisters (and their judgmental cousin Chick) together, exploring their family history and its hundreds of tiny tragedies in layers of humour and truth. The ensemble are at their best here, and the laughs come faster and the jokes land more reliably.
Henley’s play seems like a conservative choice for a black-box independent theatre; these spaces are typically the domain of riskier fare. And while it’s great to see plays by and about women in the Old Fitz, the women-centric plays so far (Low Level Panic, 4 Minutes 12 Seconds, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and now Crimes of the Heart) are about men attacking women and women trying in various ways to pick up the pieces, or about the danger of women’s sexuality. Crimes of the Heart is perfectly charming, but there’s still a long way to go at the Old Fitz for diversity in storytelling.