Crimes of the Heart

By on 24 October, 2014 in Art, Fun, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

It was my first time volunteering for the Cloverdale Playhouse – opening night for Crimes of the Heart – and I was a little nervous. We’d be handling cash and checking in the folks who’d purchased tickets online. Fortunately, I was in good hands. The staff showed us their well-established system for arrivals, and I was able to work with two other long-time volunteers. I got to see first hand how community-oriented the Playhouse really is. Even though it’s just the third year of the Playhouse, we’ve quickly come to see it as a neighborhood staple. And even though it’s an institution, the feel is anything but institutional. Regulars are recognized on sight as they enter and often welcomed with hugs. There’s plenty of friendly chatter as new and established patrons gather in the foyer of the old church, braced against the cool fall air and anticipating the production to come. As I left my station to go see the play, I felt proud to live in a community that shares in the idea of community theater.

The third season of the Playhouse has pulled the camera in close a little bit, focusing on race and class with A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park, even as it reached into whimsy and fantasy with Into the Woods and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Crimes of the Heart, written by Beth Henley and directed here by Maureen Costello, manages to infuse a good bit of whimsy into an intimate story about sisterhood and the often-difficult bonds of family.

The story about three adult sisters learning how to relate to each other amid the tumults of life in a small town draws on universal themes. But the play and its staging are inescapably Southern. Crimes is set in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. It is the 1970s, and no one except her annoying cousin Chick (Rhonda Crim) has remembered Lenny’s birthday. Deborah Robinson’s Lenny is a tall flurry of often-exasperated gestures with a gift for physical comedy. She is the anchor of what remains of her family and a caretaker for the bed-ridden patriarch, her grandfather. We never meet him, but he looms offstage from the hospital, driving many of the characters’ actions and opinions.

From her kitchen (an impeccably designed set with the eye for detail we’ve come to expect from Playhouse productions), Lenny sets in motion a series of events that will challenge herself, her sisters and even her small town. The three sisters are coming together. Babe (a delightful Sarah Adkins) arrives from jail, released on bail after shooting her husband. Soon Meg (Jaymee Vowell) travels from Los Angeles and the three set into the kind of conversational dances familiar to anyone who loves their family but finds them a bit difficult. Sisterhood is a vocal, complicated thing. Crimes captures this well, tracing the interpersonal gambits each sister uses to share ideas and seek affection while protecting themselves from emotional harm.

The play is billed as a “comedy/drama,” and the audience certainly received both parts of this. The comedy persists throughout. Even as complex emotional wrangling unfolded in the close quarters on stage, our pew physically shook with laughter many times. The relatable and particular Southernness of the play and its production probably added to its warm reception – you got the feeling that everyone in the audience had either been or met one of these characters in their lives. Amid the laughter, there is also drama. A particularly stunning moment in the second act (which we are not going to spoil for you, go see it yourself if you want to know) caused several loud gasps in the otherwise hushed theater.

The play tackles a difficult slate of issues, including infertility, promiscuity, mental illness, caregiver responsibilities and domestic violence. Laughter softens their edges a bit, a necessity if the sisters are to get by and survive together. This conveys an important message with a light hand, reminding us that human relationships build resilience through shared experience, and that openness is not an easy thing. In Crimes, humor is the medicine that helps the McGrath sisters endure and grow stronger together.

Outside the family, three other characters anchor the story: the cousin, the lawyer and the former doctor. It’s fair to say that the audience simply adored Rhonda Crim as Chick. She just nailed a performance as  a certain type of neighbor/relative who involves themselves in your business. She’s a comic foil with sharp edges, but manages to remain human and not wholly unsympathetic. You get where she’s coming from, even as you remember rolling your eyes at someone just like her at a recent family gathering.

Because there’s a murder investigation going on, Babe needs a lawyer. She gets a young fellow named Barnette, ably played by Mark Dasinger, Jr. complete with seersucker suit and giant briefcase. Although the script’s idea of what is involved in a felony investigation might strain the imagination of the many lawyers likely to see the play around here, the production manages to glide past the legal details. Sarah Adkins shines in Babe’s interactions with her lawyer, drawing him out of his shell and making us wonder at the many layers that must compose the kind of beautiful Southern woman who marries (and then tries to murder) the richest man in town.

There’s also a handsome former doctor whom everyone still calls Doc (Bill-E Cobb). He’s an old flame of Meg’s who is the kind of small-town friend who drops by to bring pecans but can also drink a bit of bourbon. Cobb captures the tone of his character’s dilemma perfectly, quietly holding his own in interactions with a flustered Lenny and a mercurial Meg. We’d like to see more of him in future productions.

We continue to be impressed by the range of talent the Playhouse brings to the stage. Their attention to small details in production really adds up. Here, we were especially impressed by the cake in the final act (Hint: Ask yourself if they are really buying a new cake for every performance). It’s even more impressive when you consider that this is genuinely community theater. From the volunteers who take your tickets in the foyer to the actors who dazzle you with their range, the Playhouse reminds us of what is possible when we come together. That mirrors the real message of Crimes of the Heart: We may have our own secrets and shames, but we also have shared values and history. We are stronger together.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, nine fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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