Crimes of the Heart

Local Arts Reviews

Crimes of the Heart

Dougherty Arts Center, through June 6

Running time: 2 hrs, 20 min

The three women at the kitchen table are looking through an old scrapbook. Their faces are bright and giddy with the rediscovery of past misadventures, until a page is turned to reveal a photo of their mother and that old cat she loved – the cat found hanging beside her the day Mom hung herself. All three spy the image in the same instant, and their faces all register the impact, falling together with shock, sadness, regret.

What's striking about this moment in the Onstage Theatre Company production of Crimes of the Heart is not just the lovely timing of it – the three actresses react in a single heartbeat, as one – but how close the women onstage seem just then. We have heard their characters talking about their mother, know of their various feelings toward her and her suicide, and their reactions to this sudden confrontation with her has the feel of a shared experience, a common sorrow. It's a quiet moment, not underlined or dwelled upon, but it firmly reinforces the sense of blood among these women, the sisterhood at the heart of Beth Henley's play.

That's the way of this production. It's not about flashy performances that deliver Henley's trademark Southern quirkiness in bold, brassy colors. It's about relationships in a small Mississippi town, which it describes for us simply and truly. Director Karen Sneed focuses on the myriad invisible cords of experience that bind together the inhabitants of a little town and guides her actors to show us the subtle tugs of those cords as the characters move around one another.

The production doesn't ignore the play's off-kilter comic elements; right from the get-go, we're treated to the spectacle of Dawn Erinn as cousin Chick doggedly wriggling into a pair of too-tight pantyhose, and the central plot – dealing with youngest sister Babe having shot her husband because she "didn't like his looks" – is given its loopy due. It's just that the actors make the tangled histories and feelings among their characters so evident and intriguing that you find as much pleasure in the interplay of these individuals as in their Dixie idiosyncrasies. There's the way Rod Mechem's Barnette Lloyd shyly darts his eyes at and then away from Rebecca Robinson's Babe as they discuss a defense strategy for her, revealing his longing for his client's heart. Or the way the face of Sarah Seaton's Meg goes sunny when her old beau Doc – played with salt-of-the-earth decency by Brian Jepson – enters the room, the weight and lines from all the disappointment suffered in Los Angeles fading in the light of an old flame. Or the way Anne Hulsman's Lenny winces when she's told of the death of her old horse Billy Boy, her face showing the pang of a deep, personal loss but also the icy sting of mortality that Lenny feels keenly on this, her 30th birthday. Or the way Hulsman's Lenny and Robinson's Babe – her mutable face revealing the little girl still inside her – exchange looks as they laugh uncontrollably over their grandfather's fate. These and a thousand other small touches draw us in and wrap us in those invisible cords. We're brought close enough to these characters to feel like we belong with them, almost like blood. Returning to Henley's Hazelhurst, Miss., in the company of Sneed and her fine cast feels like going home.

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Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley, Onstage Theatre Company, Karen Sneed, Dawn Erinn, Rod Mechem, Rebecca Robinson, Anne Hulsman, Sarah Seaton, Brian Jepson

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