The proscenium arch is used to magnificent effect in Alley Theatre’s “Crimes of the Heart,” which runs through May 5. That window, through which the audience watches the actors, uses a certain level of horizontal ingenuity that we will go into later.
Beth Henley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play depicts the Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi. The time is 1974. The play makes a pointed reference that events take place five years after Hurricane Camille.
The metaphoric healing of wounds, whether inflicted by nature or human denial, looms large, but not as large as the distinct traits that define the sisters.
Lenny seems plucky but insecure; she’s the spinster of the siblings. Meg has returned home like the prodigal sister after her West Coast recording career derails. Babe has just shot her husband.
The reason “Crimes of the Heart” works so well has everything to do with its mixture of comedy and pathos. The ending has the true ability to bring you down and up in the same heartbeat. Director Theresa Rebeck plays an exacting game with the characters and the staging that make events realize their full potential. There’s a feeling of economy in the actors movements that can sporadically evolve into a kind of dance of life.
The setting is a kitchen area of Lenny’s home, which sports a beautifully patterned floor. It’s the family home owned by the paterfamilias who lies dying in a hospital. There’s a staircase and a second level just below the curtain line. It’s mostly Babe who uses the second level, and when she does, the audiences is only able to see her feet and legs. Sometimes Babe stamps up and down across and at other times waltzes or drags along. This line-of-sight will become important in a later scene.
The other three characters are next-door cousin Chick Boyle, who’s a real Southern harridan; along with Doc Porter, who once had an affair with Meg that ended badly and resulted in a slight leg injury, all occurring during the previously mentioned hurricane Camille; and lawyer Barnette Lloyd who offers to defend Babe on the attempted murder charge mainly as we learn later because he has a personal vendetta, plus files of incriminating evidence on her husband.
In the playbill, an interview with Henley mentions how she wrote the play “in a rage.” Henley also felt let down with a subsequent movie adaptation that came out in 1986. “It was written when the feminist movement was getting started,” she says. “That’s why it wasn’t quite right when they set the film in the ’80s.”
The Bruce Beresford-directed movie garnered three Oscar nominations and featured three actresses as the sisters (Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek — all of whom were Oscar winners). Despite a greater latitude of locations, Sam Shepard as Doc, not to mention a wonderful score by George Delerue, the film added baggage to the structure of the play by adding more actors. We didn’t need to see the father in the hospital, or Chick yelling at her kids, or the fifteen-year-old boy Babe has an affair with.
Skyler Sinclair, a UH theater and dance graduate (and making her Alley debut), shines as Babe. She’s an earthy vision, shorter in stature than her sisters, but taller, with her bare foot stance in the world. Chelsea McCurdy and Melissa Pritchett, both Alley regulars, play Meg and Lonnie.
Before the play started, the excellent sound system usually reserved for vocal intonations was rocking on a playlist of mid-1970s rock hits like “We’re an American Band.” The show actually didn’t start until 8 p.m., whereas most shows start at 7:35 p.m., but the music propelled the spare time.
Music plays a part in the play, as a song may be heard on the radio that reflects what’s being said by the characters. That thin line at the top that represents the second floor becomes a normal part of the set until a climatic event late in the play.
Babe wanders to the top with a chair with a rope around her neck. When she attempts to hang herself, all we see is her feet kicking at the very top of the stage.
Naturally, the rope is attached to a ceiling fan that collapses. Babe walks downstairs, rejected in her suicide attempt only to moments later take part in Lonnie’s belated birthday cake celebration. The magic of “Crimes of the Heart” dwells in that very elusive part of drama that allows comedy and tragedy to live in the same space.
“Crimes of the Heart” runs at the Alley Theatre through May 5.