Lucy Lavely, Maxey Whitehead and Kelly Campbell in Crimes of the Heart. Photo by Gary Sweetman.
As director Barbara Redmond remarks in her notes for the Banyan Theater Company’s production of Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley’s three sisters in the play do bear a strong resemblance to another well-known three sisters—the ones of Chekhov’s enduring play. They are, like Chekhov’s women, trapped in a small town with longings to escape, and the specter of suicide does hover over each family. There are other comparisons to make as well, but of course Henley’s Magrath sisters bear more than a few distinctive Southern eccentricities of their own.
Lenny, the eldest (Maxey Whitehead), is turning 30 on the verge of spinsterhood after devoting herself to taking care of her aging grandfather for years. Meg, the middle sister (Kelly Campbell), has gone through more than her fair share of men and booze in her flailing attempts to become a successful singer. And Babe, the youngest (Lucy Lavely), does them one better; she’s just shot her not-nice lawyer-husband in the stomach, which is a reason for the sisters to marshal all their forces to get her off the hook, with the help of a lawyer (Jesse Dornan) who may have his own feelings for the off-kilter but somehow appealing Babe.
It could be the stuff of soap opera, complete with a straitlaced, interfering cousin (Georgia Mallory Guy); Meg’s old boyfriend, now married but still a flame possible to relight (Christopher Swan, who stepped into the role at the last minute but nevertheless manages to inhabit it); threats of blackmail and even a grandpa in a coma. But in Henley’s world of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the comedy of the piece strikes us as well as its pathos. The atmosphere of the play (which won the Pulitzer back in 1981) moves successfully back and forth between dark and light and many shades in between.
We feel for these sisters, each of whom is a different case of arrested development due to their unhappy family history. The shifting dynamics among the sisters are well-played out here; I especially believed in Whitehead’s Lenny, the dutiful one torn between propriety and loyalty and longing for a beau of her own. But the cast in general brings their characters and their dilemmas to touching life.
Crimes of the Heart
continues through Aug. 26 in the Cook Theatre; for tickets call 351-2808 or go to banyantheatercompany.com