Crimes of the Heart

City Theatre's production is so enjoyable that you'll be inclined to overlook its flaws

Arts Reviews

Crimes of the Heart

City Theatre, through March 16

Running time: 2 hr, 10 min

Few plays in the canon of American theatre can make a claim of ubiquity, but Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart is one that can. Ever since it earned Henley a Pulitzer Prize back in 1981, the play has been a constant presence on stages all over the country. The reasons for its omnipresence are many: one set; a small cast, primarily female; black humor; and that rarest of commodities in contemporary theatre, a warm and loving heart.

That the play is set in Hazlehurst, Miss., five years after Hurricane Camille (circa 1974) probably doesn't hurt either.

Tennessee Williams, one of the icons of American theatre, made a great living parodying and dramatizing the lives of those living in the general vicinity of the Gulf Coast, the Big River, and/or the Crescent City, because the Southern Gothic style, with its ironies and contradictions, is ripe for such dramatic examination. Consider the Magrath sisters, who populate Henley's play: Their mother hung herself, along with a cat, when they were young, leaving the sisters in the care of their grandmother and grandfather. Lenny, the oldest sister, is a spinster with a bad ovary, living on the largesse, such as it is, of her granddaddy. Meg, the middle sister, is a chronic liar who abandoned her lover to the hurricane and has everyone convinced that she makes her living as a singer when she actually clerks at a pet-food company. And Babe, the youngest sister, has just shot her well-known husband because she "didn't like his looks." The shooting of Zackery, a state senator, reunites the Magrath sisters at their childhood home

Let me say straight up: I enjoyed this production at the City Theatre more than anything else I've seen this year. Despite knowing the script well before I walked in, I laughed often and cried once, and who could ask for more than that from a play? Henley's script practically shouts out loud for a quick tempo, and director Jennifer McKenna has her actors breeze through the three acts in just slightly over two hours. The three leads – Rachel McGinnis as Lenny, Melissa Rentrop as Meg, and Briana McKeague as Babe – make it look easy. Easy as well is the rapport among the three; you believe they're sisters, and McKeague and Rentrop look enough alike that they could be sisters. The show's other three actors – Michelle Cheney as Magrath cousin Chick Boyle; Derek Jones as Meg's sometime lover, Doc Porter; and Gabriel Smith as Babe's attorney, Barnette Lloyd – lend ample support, especially Cheney, whose Chick the Stick puts the "vass" in "vivacity."

Because I enjoyed so much of the production, its flaws stand out as well. While McKenna has her actors take ample time to play many of the script's more dramatic moments, some moments that need similar time get blown by like the hurricane that took out Biloxi. Other choices – for instance, the considerably fewer than 30 candles on Lenny's birthday cake, Babe's making of the lemonade, and the gaping hole where the kitchen sink should be – indicate a lack of care, cash, or effort that should have been somehow addressed. But you'll overlook a lot here, because these Magraths deserve your good will, as does any family so focused on forgiveness, caring, and love.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Arts Reviews
Art Review: “Masters: Calder and Dalí”
Art Review: “Masters: Calder and Dalí”
Rare gems get the chance to shine at Ao5

Cat McCarrey, July 19, 2024

Art Review: “Encounters in the Garden”
Art Review: “Encounters in the Garden”
Laredo-based artist renders open interaction with the unfamiliar

Lina Fisher, July 12, 2024

More by Barry Pineo
Arts Review
Guest by Courtesy
Etiquette takes a pratfall in this comic battle for control between cousins

Nov. 11, 2011

Arts Review
The B. Beaver Animation
The Rude Mechs' re-creation of the Mabou Mines work is necessary but strange

Nov. 4, 2011


Crimes of the Heart, City Theatre Company, Jennifer McKenna, Rachel McGinnis, Melissa Rentrop, Briana McKeague

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle