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Arts & Culture

Review: ‘Crimes of the Heart’ at Theatre Downtown

Complex women take center stage at Theatre Downtown, where a sense of family reigns

Photo: PHOTO BY KIRK WOODS, License: N/A


Is anything as fantastically frustrating as family? Family can bemuse, befuddle, even break your heart, and still bring you back again and again out of unconditional love. The above could apply equally to the Magrath sisters, the central clan in Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, and to my relationship with Theatre Downtown, the Orange Avenue institution that’s currently presenting the Pulitzer Prize-winning play as part of their 25th anniversary season.

Lenny Magrath (Natalie Reed) is having about as bad a 30th birthday as you could imagine. A sexless, strait-laced spinster-in-training straining to care for her ailing grandfather, Lenny has lost her beloved horse to a lightning strike, been needled by her narcissistic cousin, Chick (Brenna Arden Warner) and resorted to lighting her own celebratory candles. To top it off, Lenny’s prodigal songstress sibling Meg (Vera Varlamov) is back in town, just in time to steal bites out of her birthday sweets and welcome baby sis Becky “Babe” Botrelle (Sarah French) home from jail after shooting her state senator spouse in the stomach.

The trio’s dynamic is as old as the Bible (or Charlie’s Angels): the serious brunette, the wild redhead, the simple blonde – and each sister has her own painful past to reveal. Lenny feels doomed to loneliness by an undersized ovary, while Meg left her true love (Frank Casado) in the lurch and with a limp. But Becky’s secrets, which culminated in the attempted murder of her husband, are the kind that could get someone lynched in 1974 Mississippi.

It’s no surprise that so many skeletons are dragged out of the closet in Henley’s three-act dramedy, which was nominated for a Tony award for Best Play in 1982 and later became an Oscar-nominated 1986 film starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek. But it is refreshing to see strong, complex women take center stage at Theatre Downtown, where I’m more accustomed to seeing male-heavy classics or campy musical comedies. Director and costume designer Fran Hilgenberg has leavened the kitchen-sink dramatics by mining the play’s prodigious black comedy, illuminating the hysterical humor that often hides just beneath the surface of soul-crushing grief.

Most crucially, Hilgenberg has carefully cast her trio of leading ladies, who, despite superficial dissimilarities, appear authentically sisterly when sitting around scenic designer Mike McRee’s delightfully dated dinette. Reed reveals the vulnerability beneath Lenny’s rigid exterior, while Varlamov (despite an indeterminate dialect and unfortunate wig) satisfyingly taps into Meg’s sublimated rage. French’s performance, however, is the one that elevates the production above typical community-theater standards, delicately balancing on the tightrope between insane and insecure. Though her Babe may seem sweetly spacey, that’s a mask that conceals a seething capacity for vengeance; watch her eyes twinkle with bloodthirsty delight as her defense attorney, Barnette Lloyd (Jeremiah Morris), describes his “personal vendetta” against her gutshot groom.

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