Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, currently in production at Curio Theatre Company, radiates Southern charm. But it also blends absurdism, black comedy, kitchen-sink realism, and the Southern Gothic tradition in ways that still feel fresh and surprising 35 years after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Director Gay Carducci balances the necessary elements of humor, pathos, and farce that make this drama unique and memorable.
Henley had a hand in redefining Southern identity in the latter half of the 20th century. Her plays reject the "steel magnolia" stereotypes that idealize unflappable, outwardly perfect women who keep their emotions in check. Her characters lead messy, complicated lives, often vacillating between joy and pain in split-second intervals. In short, they’re real people.
Crimes of the Heart follows one complicated day in the lives of the Magrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Mississippi. Eldest sister Lenny (Rachel Gluck) finds her 30th birthday overshadowed by the news that her youngest sibling, Babe (Tessa Kuhn), has shot her abusive husband in the stomach. Amidst the chaos, middle child Meg (Colleen Hughes) arrives from Los Angeles, still harboring a crush on her high-school flame Doc Porter (Harry Slack, a tad monochromatic). Matters are continuously complicated by the presence of Chick Boyle (Lesley Berkowitz), the sisters’ image-conscious cousin, who worries how Babe’s transgression will affect her reputation in town.
The play occasionally sends up clichés of life below the Mason-Dixon line by leaning into them. Meg feigns horror upon learning Doc — whom she abandoned in favor of a burgeoning singing career in California — has married a woman from the North; their children, she figures, must be “half-Yankees.” And when she discovers Babe’s affair with an African-American teenager, Meg declares she had no idea her sister was “a liberal.” (Babe categorically denies this.)
Barnette Lloyd (Chase Byrd, in an endearing performance), the lawyer hired to represent Babe, cops to a “longstanding personal vendetta” against her husband, whom he describes as “a bully, a brute, and a redneck thug.” You half-expect him to demand pistols at dawn.
But Henley more often upends our expectations. With levity and forthrightness, Crimes of the Heart addresses suicide, sexuality, and the deep disappointment that permeates ordinary lives — topics long considered taboo in this society.
The character of Chick — whom Berkowitz plays with a vigorous zeal that remains refreshingly free of overstatement — serves as an avatar of proper manners and feminine gentility; we can’t help but delight in her escalating horror as the Magrath girls’ escapades make it harder and harder for her to keep up appearances. When Lenny finally chases Chick off with a broom, she also banishes everything that Chick represents: the repression that belies respectability.
A nigh-flawless ensemble
The rest of Carducci’s nigh-flawless ensemble keep the laughs and hurt coming for two-and-a-half unflagging hours. Each member of the central trio deserves especial praise, although Gluck’s Lenny emerges as the production’s unquestionable discovery.
Gluck crafts a wrenching portrait of a woman crushed by societal expectations and personal insecurity over her inability to have children. Henley allows moments of levity and hopefulness to break through Lenny’s resigned exterior, and Gluck plays them with warmth and gusto.
Hughes shows us Meg’s toughness, but doesn’t let us forget it’s mostly an act. In many ways, she’s still the scared little girl who discovered her mother’s lifeless body 15 years earlier.
Headstrong one moment and tremulous the next, Kuhn reminds us of Babe’s naiveté. Costumed (by Aetna Gallagher, who does fine work throughout) in a puff-sleeved baby-doll dress with prominent pink barrettes holding back her pin-straight hair, she resembles a child dropped into an adult world she doesn’t understand. Her impulsive, passion-driven actions make perfect sense in this context.
An exquisite physical production only enhances this play’s many pleasures. Paul Kuhn’s hyper-realistic kitchen set, complete with a sink that expels actual running water, grounds us firmly in the play’s 1970s ethos. You can practically smell Pine-Sol wafting from the lineoleum countertops. Tim Martin’s lighting design — garish during the high comedy, sensitive when the moment calls for introspection — always suits the mood, and Damien Figureas’s subtle interstitial music delights without distracting. Cast member Byrd, a born-and-raised Southern boy, works wonders as dialect coach.
Carducci works wonders, too, by keeping the proceedings from creaking or stalling. But don’t just take my word for it. Crimes of the Heart may just be the only honest-to-goodness can’t-miss production in Philadelphia.