Image: Lynn Lane

You’d be forgiven for thinking a play that debuted at a regional theater in 1979 was getting a little moldy at the edges. In our rapidly evolving world, we sometimes don’t pause long enough to consider what wisdom can come from the past—even if that past is closer than we think.

But that, say two of the team behind Crimes of the Heart, opening this weekend at the Alley Theatre, is exactly why this play still matters.

“Yeah, it’s absolutely easy to look at it as a play about sisters,” says Melissa Pritchett, who plays Lenny, the oldest of the McGrath sisters. “You watch them go through what they go through. But, no one is shamed for her actions, for the choices she makes. That’s what makes it feel so current.”

Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony Award nominee for Best Play opened off-Broadway in 1980. It’s the story of the three McGrath sisters who convene at their grandfather’s house in Mississippi after one of them, Babe, has shot her abusive husband. Resentments resurface. Grudges get deeper. Sisters will sister.

At the time it premiered, it wasn’t that the sisters’ trials and tribulations were shocking, per se. But it was shocking social commentary that their choices and actions were presented in such a straight-forward manner. Today, we might not think twice about women feeling they can voice their grievances at the world or their own lives. Two generations ago, revelations like those were somewhat startling.

“Beth really stepped in telling this not as a story of sisters but as a story about us, as a society,” says director Theresa Rebeck. “None of us wanted to present this as an old chestnut that’s been scrubbed off. The reality is, so many of the questions raised in this play are things women are still dealing with.”

Rebeck has no doubt women have made great strides in their working and home lives since the 1970s, when the play is set. But she also recognizes that it is wrong to think because those strides have been made, that issues of inequality have been solved. Henley’s play looks at those squarely from a domestic—not a workplace—side. The McGrath homestead, which gave the sisters their roots, is a catalyst for the lives the three created.

“When I did a monologue of Lenny’s in college, I was in my 20s, and I’m talking about how it's my 30th birthday, which felt a thousand years away,” Pritchett says. “Now, playing Lenny and looking through the lens of my own experience, and knowing the magic that comes with being 30, it’s a different feeling. Lenny feels like she’s at the end of her life in so many ways. But I know what’s still out there to discover.”

“I’m a big believer in leaving blood on the floor,” Rebeck says of her approach to directing. She’s talking figuratively, of course, but in this play, that can be taken literally as well. Alexander Dodge’s set design is a very large kitchen with red walls, a space where, Rebeck says, she wanted to create islands of isolation for the characters as they discuss their lives. “These women have been through terrible things, and they’re hard to talk to about. But this is also a funny play in many ways. They laugh through the tragedy.”

Rebeck and Pritchett agree that they hope audiences are able to see that as well. The characters in Crimes of the Heart are hardly perfect; sometimes they do unlikeable things. But for two generations, audiences have rooted for these women, because the soul in Henley’s play is that we are all in this life together, trying to make the best of what’s in front of us.

“Every day in rehearsal, someone says wow, this is such a great play,’” says Pritchett.

“It’s really a great play,” echoes Rebeck.

They’re betting Alley audiences agree. 

April 12–May 5. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.

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