Crimes of the Heart was Beth Henley’s first full length play, and was seen at the Manhattan Theatre Club and then onto Broadway, where it played for 535 performances in the John Golden Theatre, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. I remember seeing it on my second trip to New York, Mary Beth Hurt as Meg Magrath, Holly Hunter as Babe, and Peter MacNicol as lawyer, Barnett.
This present season on Broadway (2017) is marked with the debut of two women writers, Lynn Nottage with her play Sweat, and Paula Vogel with her play Indecent – both, by the way, to be directed by women. What is remarkable is each of these writers have won almost every prize going for playwrighting in the USA, including the Pulitzer Prize: How I Learned to Drive, by Ms Vogel (1998) and Ruined, by Ms Nottage (2009), and yet, this is their first Broadway production. I introduce this information to underline the importance of Ms Henley’s play written in 1979 and, subsequently, reaching Broadway as a phenomena of its period – a play with four female leads with two support roles for men, written by a woman! It seemed, in that far-off time, that feminism was, at last breaking through in the fields of commercial theatre endeavour. History has told us, of course, it was otherwise, but Crimes of the Heart was a fully celebrated herald of a possible future. Ms Vogel and Nottage are we hope signalling a change in the culture of the commercial theatre, today. (Although, the other Broadway bound plays, this year, are written by men – 8 in all.) In Sydney, The Laden Table, a significant theatre event, has been nurtured and written by 6 women.
This production directed by Janine Watson, attacks the play with some studied detail and succeeds on its own terms. But, it is, mostly, a superficial glance at the world of the play and played at a ‘Yankee’ tempo of blustering pace, its affect causing some in the audience to ask why do this play in 2017? Its content feels/seems shallow and of preposterous and superficial issues, the characters, as well, being caricatures of Southern ‘heroines’ of grotesque indulgence, that in this day and age trivialises our time spent with the Magrath sisters. Whereas, when more deeply explored, it is (can be) a gentle study of three drifting southern belles in the aftermath of a whirlwind hurricane called life, each coping on the edges of sanity to hold it all together on their own terms. The characters and the play, in a careful production, ought to have resonances beyond the present action and reverberate out into the profundity of what it takes to have a human existence in the face of fate, or our own wilful choices. Is it fate or will that has brought us (our sisters of humanity) to this edge? Hardly the question asked, or that would be asked, after watching this production of the play at the Old Fitz.
Crimes of the Heart is a homage to the Chekhov canon, specifically Three Sisters, and when carefully unpicked, has the possibility, in the true Moscow Art Stanislavskian tradition, of a similar experience – a journey of identification involving laughter through tears and back again to laughter. A story of sisters, who no matter what life has thrown at them, survive – who discover that nothing matters except the holding bonds of love. Just as it is with the great Chekhov experiences in the theatre, Crimes of the Heart must happen as a lovingly observed naturalism, where the past/present and future of the lives of the characters are visible in every moment of the play – a tradition of the American theatre, inherited through the influence of the Moscow Art, absorbed by the Group Theatre, and passed on through the work of people such as Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis and Clifford Odets. Ms Henley, uses all of this inherited technique, and, in my opinion, never hits a greater height of truth than with this play. The production must let the audience inhabit the world of the play with the author-loved characters. This production, unfortunately, simply asks us to watch/look at them. It is where the play is failed, and draws the question, that I heard as I was leaving the theatre: why is this play been done today?
For me, the choice of the introduction and interlude music, a dreamy, bluesy sound created the right mood for this Gothic Southern tragic/comedy set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, set in 1974. A study of three sisters, Lenny (Laura Pike), Meg (Amanda McGregor) and Rebecca/Babe (Renae Small) and their cousin next-door, Chick (Amy Usherwoood), on a fateful day of a Birthday celebration/the return of a sister from a mad house/ a murder and court case involving race relations between one of them and a fifteen year old boy/the memory of the suicide of their mum and the simultaneous hanging of her cat/the death of their grandpa/a lightning strike that has struck and killed their pet horse – all making a real bad day. We learn of a whole set of mean absurdities, all stewing towards the realisation and acceptance of this ‘bad day’ that they will need to live through to begin the next one. As the sunrises on the new dawn, at the play’s end, these three sisters blow out the candles on Lenny’s belated birthday cake, making wishes, and carve it up in large hunks to a further sugar high of Southern optimism in a socially calamitous state. Amor Fati – love your fate. Embrace the day.
Within the boundaries of this production, Ms Usherwood scores well, and the outstanding scene, that for my money hits the right tone and depth of Ms Henley’s play, occurs with Rowan Davie’s sensitive rendering, as Doc with Ms McGregor’s Meg, late in the play. Caleb Alloway (Barnett), Ms Small and Pike play with robust energy but mostly ‘indicated function’. The emotional tempos marking the difference between the three sisters are too aggressive and similar. We see the top third of the ‘ice berg’ of this text and, relatively, little of the subtextual lower, under-water two thirds – the greater part of the opportunity of the play (any good play).
Set and costume design, by Jonathan Hindmarsh, looks spare, lacking loving lived-in detail – for instance, the refrigerator had no ‘dressing’ in it, just the props asked for to serve the action – and Alexander Berlage’s lighting design was unusually bland.
Crimes of the Heart, at the Old Fitz, is OK as an entertainment, but the play has more to say than this production investigates.
Company: Red Line Productions
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo
Dates: 15 March – 8 April 2017
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- All My Sleep and Waking (Old 505) – theatre review
- In Real Life (Darlinghurst) – theatre review
- Night Slows Down (KXT) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television