‘Crimes of the Heart’

Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Tragi-Comedy of Two Sister’s Neurotic Search for Happiness

On The Town | Lisa Malzer | April 2007

Kathleen White as Babe McGrath playing at Vienna‘s English Theater (Photo: Reinhard Reidinger)

The Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi are beleaguered by tragedy.

Their lives in Beth Henley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning play Crimes of the Heart are bound up in neurotic coping habits as they search for a slice of happiness, which they find suddenly as they share a giant chocolate birthday cake.

The current production at Vienna’s English Theatre, directed by Jonathan Fox, takes us into the Magrath kitchen, complete with American baking essentials, white wainscoting, white table, yellow fridge and blue tieback curtains (set designed by Hans Kudlich).

Fox identified one of his challenges as "finding a way into the heart of southern American culture." Even though the set pulls us in, the production never completely embraces the full range emotions in Henley’s "Southern Gothic" play about disappointment, destiny, and hope.

Ripe with melodrama and stereotypical shrieking, the premiere flaunted superficial giddiness, with ample laughter from the audience, only sporadically revealing the sisters’ traumatized souls where one would have hoped for more substance.

The sisters’ mother had hung herself, along with her big yellow cat. Chick, the sisters’ cousin (Jessica Wortham), still lives in the shadow of the suicide. Pride prohibits her from building solid family relationships. She tries to mask her insecurity through social climbing and a critical eye, especially of her trashy cousins.

Wortham, hair twirled up in curls, with gold dangling earrings, chartreuse dress and matching heels (costumes designed by Lothar Hüttling), also reveals a crude cackler with her high-pitched voice, stuffing her legs into petite size stockings.

The Magrath sisters, however, are at the play’s core. Lenny (Kate Gleason) is the oldest sister. As Gleason lights a candle atop a cookie on her birthday, her eyes twinkle with childlike fascination in its glow. Birthdays remind her of all she has not done, and how long she has left to live. Gleason knits her brows and pouts with fear and self-doubt as reality hits. She has a shrunken ovary, her grandfather is dying, and her horse was struck by lightening.

Lenny believes anything, and her youngest sister Babe will naively tell her anything. For them, belief is a way to make it through the tough times. Kathleen White is both comical and tragic. She stands serenely at the front of the stage recounting the hideous details of shooting her husband. White shows us her underlying pain, yet brings us to laughter with her pink dress, curls, sugar addiction and hopeless suicide attempts. She bangs her head comically as she sticks it in the oven with the gas on, yet cries out to her mother sorrowfully. Death reminds her that she wants to live.

Barnette (Howard Nightingall) is her young lawyer, and has a "personal vendetta" to settle. Nightingall, with his low raspy voice, white suit, and red bow tie is awkward and sweet, comforting Babe in her distress.

These complications are incomprehensible to Meg (Shannon Koob), a failed singer who has had way too many men and keeps the bourbon flowing. She still has the urge for one more fling with her married ex-boyfriend Doc (Aaron Serotsky).

Koob emerges in a belted shiny black trench with rhinestone-studded jeans and oversized sunglasses. Meg should be cool, but also traumatized, as she was the one to find her mother dead. Koob’s portrayal is too aloof. She saunters across the stage, rocking and bouncing on her high chunky boot heels like a pop-star, at times detached from the other cast members.

Meg would like control of her destiny, "taking a drag off of death" with her cigarette. Koob shows us that side, but a glimpse of Meg’s vulnerability would balance the performance.

When the sisters finally come together without shouting at one another, Lenny wishes for just a moment of happiness. As the sisters cut slices of a table sized chocolate birthday cake, they briefly forget their burdens and freeze their motion under golden light to the tune of Donna Fargo, "The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A."

The audience members applauded vigorously for a production that was definitely entertaining, but not gripping.


Crimes of the Heart

Through May 5th

Tickets: 19.50-38.00 Euro

Vienna’s English Theatre

Josefsgasse 12

1080 Wien

(01) 402 12 60-0


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