Crimes of the Heart is a tragic-comic Southern Gothic piece by playwright Beth Henley, and will be at the Guthrie on the Wurtele Thrust Stage until June 15. The play is a Pulitzer Prize recipient and is also well-known from the 1986 film adaptation. It is set in the small town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, in the late 1970s and follows the reunion of the McGrath sisters, Lenny, Meg, and Babe, in the wake of a crisis.
The set is an open-faced 1970s single family home. The audience can see the front door, the kitchen, the living room, and the staircase leading to the second level. There is also a skyline created by lighting effects that marks the passage of time; the sunsets and sunrises are beautifully-rendered. The action takes place in the area around the house and briefly in the house’s upstairs, which is out of view.
When the play begins, Babe, the youngest of the sisters, has shot her husband and must face the consequences of her actions. As the sisters attempt to cope with Babe’s upcoming legal battle, each must also confront the underlying struggles of daily life. Lenny, the oldest, has been unlucky in love and is exhausted from caring for the girls’ aging grandfather. Meg is an aspiring singer who has moved to California and has a habit of overindulging in alcohol and men. Babe seeks legal advice while struggling with dark secrets of her own.
In spite of the many tragic events, the play comes through with unexpected sources of humor. The dialogue mixes the heartbreaking with the absurd in a way that feels very real. One of the great strengths of the play is a sense that the events and characters are authentic. Problems aren’t solved from one act to the next; they linger throughout the play, but that doesn’t stop Lenny from chasing the sisters’ irritating cousin around the perimeter of the set with a broomstick. An audience could literally laugh and cry throughout the course of this performance.
While I appreciate the complexity of the events and emotions the characters portray, there is an important piece of information that I felt was missing at the end of the final act. Some people might interpret this omission as a representation of the uncertainty of life. While I enjoyed the touching sisterly moment the play ends with, I felt unsure that the play had ended until the applause began. I wanted more of a resolution.
All in all, Crimes of the Heart was a very down-to-earth look at the lives of three imperfect sisters determined to stick together through the many challenges that have come their way. It will be at the Guthrie for two more weeks, and I would definitely recommend catching a performance if you can. I thought it was a very relatable account of people dealing with tragedy one day at a time, with humor and some measure of grace.
Photos via: Guthrie Theater (Joan Marcus)