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Theater review: 'Crimes of the Heart' at South Coast Repertory

May 17, 2010 |  4:30 pm

Crimes Two telling images frame the travails that course through "Crimes of the Heart" in a hurricane of hilarity and hurt. The opening sight is a vaguely spinsterish woman gamely attempting to attach a birthday candle to a cookie. The final fadeout finds that same woman, in tandem with her sisters, tucking into a blazing birthday cake roughly the size of a suitcase, laughing through their tears.

They are apt bookends to Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer and Tony winner, which remains a marvel of construction, as the solid production at South Coast Repertory reminds us anew. That this tale of three wounded Mississippi siblings having an epically bad day was Henley's first play is still impressive, and its narrative logic and Southern Gothic wit denote "Crimes" as a modern classic.

Set in 1974, "Crimes" follows the Magraths of Hazlehurst, a trio that would make Eudora Welty nod knowingly. Eldest sister Lenny (the excellent Blair Sams) is the aforementioned candle-wrangler. Her 30th birthday has gone virtually unnoted, but that's the least of her worries.

It is hard enough for dutiful Lenny to stomach sanctimonious cousin Chick Boyle (an assured Tessa Auberjonois), whose entrance with a perfunctory birthday candy box plants the first of Henley's plot seedlings. Never mind that patriarch Old Granddaddy is in hospital and probably won't come out. Not to mention that Billy Boy, Lenny's beloved pet horse, has succumbed to lightning, that Lenny's dearth of suitors relates to her shrunken ovary. Lenny hardly needs Ladies League climber Chick cattily reminding her of the scandalous past behavior of middle sister Meg (a fine-tuned Jennifer Lyon), who promptly returns home from a failed Hollywood singing career to deal with the most pressing Magrath crisis.

That concerns youngest sister Babe (the wonderfully vivid Kate Rylie), released on bail after shooting her politico husband in the stomach. Babe's reasoning is as direct as it is pixilated -- "I didn't like his looks." Yet there is more to her and Meg's and Lenny's situations than are immediately apparent. That condition extends to Doc Porter (sturdy Nathan Baesel), Meg's former flame, whose life went akimbo after their tryst in the eye of Hurricane Camille; and lawyer Barnette Lloyd (scene-stealing Kasey Mahaffy), the Ole Miss graduate who takes Babe's case for his own infatuated yet vindictive reasons.

Crimes2 But then, tragic notoriety has shadowed the Magraths since their father deserted their mother, who committed suicide and took her pet cat with her. One prime achievement of Henley's writing is that even the loopiest twists register with truthfulness. As Meg says, "We've got to figure out a way to get through these bad days here," and Henley's refusal to comment on or judge how they do so justifies the play's frequent comparisons to Chekhov.

Which is how director Warner Shook handles it, compressed into two airtight acts from its original three. Eschewing broad strokes in favor of delicately heightened naturalism, Shook lets things unfold with the same specificity that earmarks designer Tom Buderwitz's superb set, Angela Balogh Calin's unfussy costumes, Jim Ragland's compositions and sound, and Peter Maradudin's lighting.

Sams, Lyon and Rylie make a beautifully balanced, wholly convincing threesome, each finding an incisive fresh take on their character. Auberjoinois avoids the caricature inherent in Chick, almost reasonable in her understated bile. If Baesel reads too young as Doc, he offers an able mix of joviality and regret, and Mahaffy imbues Barnette with truly tickling physicality and word pointing. You could imagine a more consistently effervescent or piercing "Crimes of the Heart," but it would do a disservice to the expert pleasures of this delightful revival.

-- David C. Nichols

Photos: Top, from left, Jennifer Lyon, Kate Rylie and Blair Sams play the sisters in South Coast Repertory's "Crimes of the Heart." Bottom, Sams and Tessa Auberjonois. Credit: Henry DiRocco/SCR.

"Crimes of the Heart," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 6. $28-$65. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.