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Dark Southern family comedy skips a few beats 

Crimes of the Heart

Photo by Curtis Brown

Crimes of the Heart

We wondered just how gracefully the dark Southern comedy CRIMES OF THE HEART was aging when PlayMakers Rep produced it in 2007. The evidence against it mounts in the current Theatre Raleigh showing.

Some of the difficulties stem from the jutting coincidences and exposition cues in Beth Henley's 1980 script. Our culture has also advanced its positions on the play's themes of domestic violence and interracial sex. Beyond these concerns, corners seem to have been cut in this production's development and design.

On an inauspicious October day in 1974, the three Magrath sisters convene after years of separation in their childhood home of Hazlehurst, Mississippi. A family crisis brings them together. The youngest, Babe (Maigan Kennedy), has just been released on bond after shooting her husband in the stomach. Her incongruous, supposedly amusing initial plea, "I just didn't like his looks," predictably covers darker truths that emerge as the plot develops.

Other crises follow these semi-eccentrics back home. Middle sister Meg (Dana Zihlman Harshaw) hasn't darkened the family door since leaving to pursue a singing and acting career in Hollywood five years before; those plans haven't exactly panned out. Oldest sister Lenny (Jennifer Avery) has been cornered into the role of caretaker for their sick stepfather; never confident enough to date, she now lives in the old homestead alone, bereft of the possibility of love.

Or at least, so it says on paper.

But under Jeffrey Meanza's direction, these characters seem underdeveloped. Lenny's deficit of confidence is barely a blip on the radar in Avery's otherwise winning interpretation—clearly the strongest of the trio. Kennedy's Babe never comes down to earth; her comic air-headedness in the face of trauma doesn't satisfyingly connect the character to what drives her actions. Harshaw's ersatz Southern accent mars what would otherwise be good scene work as Meg.

Directorial shortcutting shows in sudden, soapy character shifts. Adam Poole has the requisite scruffy good looks for Doc Porter, the wronged good man that Meg ran out on. But there is nothing understated about the instant re-ignition of Porter's torch when he hears that Meg is back in town. The change is as abrupt as the interest Babe takes in her attorney, Barnette Lloyd (Jesse Gephart, directed to play too many cards too close to the chest) during a legal conference. Both of these hinge moments bear about as much subtlety as the Freddy Mercury sound cue at the end of Act One.

None of these takes is hopeless—far from it. But in each, a significant problem remained unsolved on opening night. Sandi Sullivan provided strong support as the hissable Chick, imperious small-town matriarch. But the first encounter between Doc and Meg went by too fast to let their chemistry fully develop.

In all, too many moments seemed as under-accessorized as Chris Bernier's set, which suggested a rental property more than a venerable family home. Shows usually develop after opening night. Crimes needs to in order to fulfill the promise of its Pulitzer Prize-winning script.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Abnormal heart rhythm"

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