Review: Crimes of the Heart

The Alley Theatre produces eight shows in a typical season and usually does a great job of navigating the waters between world premieres, contemporary plays, and classic revivals. The most curious choice on this season’s schedule is CRIMES OF THE HEART, a title likely familiar because of its movie version, but a play not often revived in professional productions. Why would the Alley make such an unusual pick?

Part of the answer comes from last night’s post-show artist talkback. Once or twice during the run of each show at the Alley, they offer “Alley In Context” where the actors and creative team come back on stage after the show and spend thirty to forty-five minutes chatting with the audience about the play they’ve just seen. During our chat, we were told that playwright Beth Henley is coming to see the show this weekend because on Monday she will be part of an Alley All-New reading of her brand new play. She’s also recently revisited the text for CRIMES OF THE HEART and made a few minor changes to the script for the Alley’s production. I’m not sure if the fact that the Alley is working on her new play had any direct influence on their choice to present her classic work, but I suspect it might. I also believe that this play was chosen because of its strong female roles and the opportunity to put several local actresses in the spotlight.

Babe Botrelle (Skyler Sinclair) has shot her abusive husband. She tried to kill him but only managed to wound him. He’s in the hospital and ready to send her to jail — or maybe a mental institution. After all, Babe’s mom allegedly went crazy years earlier and killed herself. Her two sisters, Lenny (Alley Resident Company member Melissa Pritchett) and Meg (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy) are trying to keep her in line while battling their own demons and each other. Each has committed at least one “crime” of the heart, be it jealousy, rage, infidelity, or simply indifference. They are the very definition of a dysfunctional family and the arrival of the nosy small-town neighbor Chick (Bree Welch) doesn’t help things. She has an opinion on everything and her nose in everyone’s business. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you’ve known at least one Chick Boyle. Babe is represented by local attorney Barnette Lloyd (Alley Resident Company member Dylan Godwin), who has only met Babe once before but has very distinct memories of that encounter. Mix in Doc Porter (Alley Resident Company member Jay Sullivan), a man who is now married but might still hold a torch for Meg (much to the dismay and perhaps jealousy of Lenny) and you’ve got the cast of characters for this drama/comedy/tragedy.

Those last three words are part of the brilliance (and also part of the problem) with Beth Henley’s work. This play won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was a hit with critics, but I found the tone to be a bit uneven. The show turns on a dime from laughter to tears, and while this benefits the piece most of the time, there were moments to me where this sudden shift didn’t ring true. However, the shift does work very well late in Act Two when Babe makes a both startling and frightening life choice. The staging of this moment is both brilliant and scary. I cannot imagine this beat playing as well on a different set.

The set itself, by Alexander Dodge, is red. Very red. Red linoleum tiles, red lighting when you enter. For a moment, I expected Mark Rothko to appear. The red is an obvious nod to the heart, love, maybe even blood. But it also leaves a lingering air of danger and foreboding throughout the show. The sound design was also well done, especially the use of the period-specific songs (the show is set 5 years after Hurricane Camille, so roughly 1974). There is also a clever sound effect used at several key moments where a song begins on the radio on the set and then slowly morphs into the full set of speakers or reverses the process by starting at rock-concert level and then slowing moving from the full sound to the small speaker on the counter. The show also uses an ethereal and somewhat menacing audio cue/music track when certain characters have an almost out-of-body experience during their specific monologues. The lights around them go down, the mood music plays, and they are suddenly in the spotlight, telling their story. This was a very interesting and clever directorial/staging choice.

Melissa Pritchett is excellent and totally inhabits Lenny. She’s the older sister who should be married with kids but instead is celebrating her birthday alone. Skyler Sinclair, in her Alley Theatre debut, is perfectly cast as Babe. She’s tiny, but a spitfire. She’s the youngest but at times seems more experienced and worldly than her two older sisters. But there are times where she also acts like a person barely out of her teens and she certainly looks like she could pass for 21 or 15 depending on the day. Bree Welch nails the small-town gossip lady in Chick. It was also noted at the talkback that Welch is pregnant and when she told the playwright Beth Henley and director Theresa Rebeck, they both agreed that the character should be pregnant too. It’s a small change that doesn’t really influence the plot but does add a small extra layer of realism. Dylan Godwin is charming as Barnette, the lawyer trying to keep Babe out of jail…or worse. Jay Sullivan also does the most he can with his small role of Doc Porter, a man who has left a lingering impression on at least one of the Magrath sisters.

The real stars of this show are the women and unfortunately, I found one of them not quite up to par with the others. Chelsea Ryan McCurdy is another local actress whom I’ve seen in many productions and always enjoyed. However, I found her a bit lacking here, especially in the strength of her voice. I had no trouble understanding the other cast members, even when their backs were to me. But there were several moments during last night’s performance where I could not understand what Meg was saying. Some of her moments, while physically well acted, were so quiet it was difficult, if not impossible, to hear the dialogue. At intermission, a couple from further back moved into the seats directly behind me in the second row and made a point to explain to me that they were also having trouble hearing her. I appreciate that the Alley rarely uses body microphones on their actors and I prefer this. But I felt like I missed a lot by not being able to properly hear the third sister.

While I enjoyed the play and the performances as a whole, I don’t feel like this is a show or a story that will stick with me. The Alley often produces plays that stay with you and you find yourself considering or dissecting long after the curtain has fallen. I doubt I’ll find myself doing that with CRIMES OF THE HEART, although I also suspect that if I were female I might be looking at this in a different way. Think STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Some of us saw it and enjoyed it, while others can watch it daily and quote it line for line.

Not saying that knowing it by heart is crazy. I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!

Wait — did I just quote STEEL MAGNOLIAS? Uh oh…

***1/2 out of *****
“Crimes of the Heart”
By Beth Henley
Directed by Theresa Rebeck
Alley Theatre
Now through May 5th
Tickets: www.alleytheatre.org
Photo: Chelsea Ryan McCurdy as Meg, Melissa Pritchett as Lenny, and Skyler Sinclair as Babe in CRIMES OF THE HEART at The Alley Theatre

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