“Crimes of the Heart” Works Its Cracked Charm in CTG’s Production
The Magrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Mississippi are having a really bad day. Many years after Mama hung herself in the basement…with the family cat, the family is in crisis again as the youngest Babe Botrelle (Audrey Vermilyea) has shot her State Senator husband Zachary after he discovered her affair with a fifteen-year-old boy, Granddaddy is back in the hospital after another stroke, Meg (Joelle Malinoski) returns home after a short stay in the L.A. Psych Ward last Christmas and rekindles her romance with her old flame, the very married Doc Porter (Joey Cook) and NOBODY remembers that its poor Lenny’s (Christine Vermilyea) birthday.
“Crimes of the Heart” by Beth Henley has been a favorite of community theatres since its Broadway debut 39 years ago and it is getting a fine production by Classic Theater Guild at Congregation Beth Israel through next Sunday directed by John Birchler.
After an odd setting of the stage, more on that later, once the play proper starts we are in very good hands. The opening scene finds poor, forlorn Lenny, played in an energetic, hang-dog manner by Christine Vermilyea which swings from despair to fury with stops at sisterly affection along the way, trying to stick and light a candle in a chocolate chip cookie and sing a couple of furtive rounds of “Happy Birthday” to herself. She is interrupted by next door neighbor, her cousin Chick Boyle, played by newcomer to the area Hannah Jay, who daintily detonates onto the stage in the evening’s most delicious performance, all southern charm dipped in acid. She is a whirl of contradictions, all phony solicitousness and down-home truth telling while hilariously trying to stuff herself into a pair of obviously too small pantyhose right in the kitchen. A terrific performance.
The two set the stage for the arrival of Meg who has left the small town for a big city show-biz career but hasn’t had a singing gig in nearly a year. Joelle Malinowski whom I have never seen onstage before is another fantastic find of the evening as the gorgeously worn, troubled and radiant Meg. She gets all her laughs and is perfectly cast as the small-town beauty with endless optimism who has run into a wall of big city indifference. She strikes sparks with taciturn Doc late in the second act in a lovely scene with Joey Porter (also new to this reviewer) and they go out for a drive…to look at the moon. She returns and has the time of her life climbing on the kitchen furniture and singing Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” into her black buckled platform pump.
The focus of the play’s attentions is poor Babe who shot her husband in the stomach, she was aiming for his heart but her hands were shaking. Audrey Vermilyea (Christine’s daughter) is having a great time in the part as the baby with a handgun. She’s growing with every stage appearance and she is quite funny here as the wounded innocent who is the most dangerous character onstage. Her scene with her young lawyer Barnette Lloyd (Marquis Heath) is a lovely meeting of two tender hearts grappling with a world of fearsome consequences. Marquis Heath who was so good in ACT’s “The Alabama Story” earlier this season brings his outre choices in line readings and physical life to Barnette and fits into this off-kilter Henley universe quite nicely. The matching of Audrey and Marquis makes the case for an open-hearted acceptance of love in all its forms which is certainly one of the playwright’s themes.
Birchler has done a great job moving this play along, the pace is quite sharp and nothing has been missed. Everyone fits their roles and even better it has been inclusively cast. Birchler moves the cast quite effectively around the very attractive kitchen set which has been built and decorated on a budget with creativity. The set design, construction and painting by Steve Suriano, Linda Wilday, Don Wheeler and the director of the kitchen is attractive, effective and appropriate, however, it is built without a crossover from stage left to stage right. During the curtain speech, actors cross the stage hiding their faces as if it were a perp walk and this happens again before the start of Act II. There are better ways to accomplish this. There is also minimal lighting and a bumpy cue leading into and out of the play. Classic Theatre Guild is challenged by their space and limitations and doesn’t always come out on top.
All in all, it was a fine evening at the theatre revisiting the Pulitzer winning play, encountering three very fine actors for the first time and enjoying a brisk, laugh-filled look at life’s headaches and heartbreaks.