The Alley Theatre is all shiny and new on the inside, but with Beth Henley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, it seems like a blast from the past onstage.
I understand the Alley's first run in 1984. Henley was getting a lot of buzz at the time, and Crimes of the Heart was a Tony-nominated Broadway hit. It truly was something new: a female-focused play that was connected to Henley’s personal rage against sexism, the appeal of a certain kind of Southern dark tragi-comedy (thanks mostly to Tennessee Williams), and a slice-of-life approach to a trio of sisters who live in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. I guess if you live in New York City, small-town Southern life is quaint, exotic, laughable, unthinkable. It is somewhere else, and you don’t want to go there.
So goes the stereotypical frame often set in Southern towns on the stage: Southern women are shallow, catty, pathetic. They don’t have the imagination to cope with life other that retreating into “loose” behavior, violence, or wallflower status. Their insipidness is worth a laugh, because their lives are a joke, marked by smiles and denial and flippant remarks no matter how serious their dire straits seem to be. So when this play came out in the 1980s, fresh on the heels of a new wave of feminism, it seemed more subversive.
Lenny Magrath (Melissa Pritchett) is the long-suffering and overlooked sister—a caretaker who, unfortunately, has self-absorbed siblings who leave all the family emergencies to her. Sisters Meg (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy) and Babe (Skyler Sinclair) are really busy creating emergencies, so they are all booked up, and Lenny is the only person that the audience can really identify with, as she actually addresses the real problems. Henley’s play is a glimpse of family dysfunction, peppered by Mississippi drawls, a 1970s setting that feels more like the 1950s, and minimized family traumas that seem trivialized each time they are introduced since everything is joke-worthy—even suicide, even attempted murder, even thinking that no man would ever want you if you can’t have children.
Dark comedy is tricky business and the director, Theresa Rebeck, has the challenging task of incorporating the funny lines with problems that are hard to make light of. This is the challenge of the script, and the wistful trajectories of Henley’s play. She offers events that seem shocking and seemingly intended to exact empathy from the audience on face value. But the problem is the outrageousness of the characters and the comedic lines dominate the emotional responses of the audience. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that the audience laughed a lot and seemed to love the whole thing. The bad news is that the South comes off so backward, the characters so screwed up, that it is hard to feel sorry for characters that seem so stupid—even if they are funny.
Enter Dylan Godwin, who understands that an accent is not everything about a character. He plays Barnette Lloyd, the soft-spoken but highly educated attorney who is trying to get Babe out of the colossal mess of not only shooting her abusive husband, but fooling around with an underage African American boy right under said husband’s nose. As Babe so succinctly puts it, sometimes things just “happen.” But the nonchalance with which her transgressions are handled are not that funny, and Godwin is the most interesting character in this play. He has a vendetta, but he is not hysterical. He knows how to play a Southern gentleman without it feeling clichéd or ridiculous. I only wish his character had been on the stage more—his understated performance is the textbook example of how you create characters in dark comedy. There is a reason he is one of the best and most versatile actors working in Houston now, and a great addition to the Alley’s Resident Acting Company.
Before you conclude that I didn’t care for this production, that is not the case. The Alley so often comes through with fantastic sets (Alexander Dodge), and I loved the detail of the family home and the clever use of stairs and a balcony hall. Yet with the exception of the opening scene involving some pantyhose, the costumes (Tilly Grimes) were less successful. Babe is a borderline sex-pot, yet dresses like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Lenny is lonely and depressed, but come on, she is only 30 years old and dresses like she is decades older. I can’t even explain the costumes for former singer Meg. Is bohemian slutty a style? Not sure, but her costumes were distracting from Chelsey Ryan McCurdy’s excellent acting.
This play hinges on its excellent ensemble cast. Godwin, as mentioned before, has perfect pitch both physically and in his delivery. Thank goodness his character is well-educated, otherwise, Henley will completely have succeeded in stereotyping Southerners as being almost freaks in their behaviors and responses to trauma and tragedy—and that isn’t that funny after a while. McCurdy, like Godwin, is an exceptional actor, and her performance in 4th Wall’s Lobby Hero sealed the deal for me in that I try and watch everything she is in. Melissa Pritchett succeeds in capturing Lenny’s understandable sadness—it is not her fault that the ending of the play with a tableau of the three sisters is contrived and unbelievable. Skyler Sinclair is wonderful as Babe Botrelle in that her comic timing is spot on in every scene. Some of the lines in Crimes of the Heart are dated and groan-worthy, and how she delivered comedy gold with nickel lines is a sight to behold.
There is a lot of necessary dovetailing and volleying between the characters, and Bree Welch as the judgmental and petty cousin Chick Boyle truly had some hilarious moments. She is an outstanding character actress, and trust me, Chick is quite a character, dripping with passive-aggressive vinegar and honey. She is the voice of what she assumes is “Hazelhurst Society”—a humorous notion in and of itself.
Crimes of the Heart is lucky to have this cast that does such a marvelous job with a play that depends heavily on the tired trope of “crazy Southern women” as a lazy way to generalize behavior and continue a cycle of trivializing the experiences of small town traumas. So even though this play seems past its prime, the performances of these actors show talent that is just getting started.
April 12–May 5. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.