Big Dawg Productions opens their 2017 season with Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart,” directed by Holli Saperstein. It was Henley’s breakthrough script and won the coveted Great American Play Contest at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. After making its way to Broadway and a Pulitzer Prize for drama, it came to Wilmington to be filmed by Bruce Beresford (a Dino De Laurintiis-era project). The film was nominated for several Oscars, including Henley for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Set in the Magrath family home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, “Crimes of the Heart” opens in the middle of the latest Magrath family crisis. Patriarch, Old Granddaddy, is in the hospital dying. The oldest sister, Lenny Magrath (Susan Auten), is turning 30, and everyone has forgotten her birthday. To make matters worse, the youngest sister, Babe (Mickey Johnson), has just been released on bail after shooting her husband in the stomach. Clearly, it is going to be a busy day. Next-door neighbor, first cousin and self-absorbed social-climbing bitch extraordinaire, Chick Boyle (Erin Hunter), is not helping make this any easier on Lenny or anyone else. She is beyond incensed that Babe has gone and sullied the family reputation further by shooting her husband—but to ask for the middle sister, the wayward Meg (Jamie Harwood), to come home? That is one injustice that should not be heaped upon poor Chick’s head. After all, it is Meg’s fault that Chick has to struggle for her social position—that and the unforgivable death of the Magrath sisters’ mother.
Lenny, despite her own frustrations and misgivings, is actually very happy to see Meg. So is Doc Porter (Bradley A. Coxe), Meg’s old flame who is now married with children but hasn’t let go of the torch he has carried all these years. Who could blame him? She’s charismatic, fun, sexy, talented, and a ball of fire. It’s enough to make any man burn, and clearly the well-meaning, soft-hearted Doc Porter does.
Coxe’s yearning every time he is near Harwood is palpable—and he’s pretty irresistible as the wronged lover from the past (and easy on the eyes, too). But the center of the action is Babe, who might be facing a life sentence for homicide. That she sees this as preferable to living with her husband and his scheming, spying sister is quite telling. His hot shot young lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (Joshua Bailey), wants to represent Babe in court, partly to avenge a family wrong and partly due to a profound experience buying an orange pound cake at a Christmas bazaar. Bailey can sell the argument of an orange pound cake as the basis for a relationship, which says a lot about his comedic talent. He and Johnson do a wonderful job of walking together the tightrope of their relationship. The mutual attraction is clear to them and the audience, but the extreme extenuating circumstances in both of their lives create a set of very difficult parameters.
Johnson’s Babe is beautiful, with flowing locks and tear-filled eyes. When she is on stage, all eyes are on her. With simple, almost absurd honesty she answers questions that are difficult to approach from anyone—let alone our closest loved ones. Standing back from the spotlight and doing her best to hold her family together is the unsung hero, Lenny. Auten’s portrayal of the dowdy, frumpy bland oldest sister, jealous of her beautiful younger sisters, is complex. Her growth throughout the show is fascinating. Chick walks all over her in the beginning because Chick is family, but when the battle lines are drawn, watching Auten find Lenny’s inner reserves is startling.
“Crimes of the Heart” is a dark comedy: The audience finds themselves laughing along with the characters through some truly terrible moments in their lives. Henley’s script can be a wonderful challenge to performers or a minefield of stumbles and missteps. But this cast rises to the challenge and hits the humor with sincerity. By exploring the unspoken in family dynamics, and the frustration of those constants in a changing world, the cast brings to life the fully realized characters that Henley intended, rather than simple caricatures too often used as standbys in Southern comedy.
Benedict Fancy’s set of the Magrath family home is stunning and detailed. A period gas stove, a bottle opener affixed to the kitchen counter, a fully stocked refrigerator, fabulous faux-finish paint, and trees with Spanish moss out of the windows make the environment ring true. Combined with lighting designer Jeff Loy’s practical-use fixtures to augment the environment, the effect is really stunning—even in such a small space.
Clearly Big Dawg Productions is off to a fabulous start for the season. They have an interesting line up planned that includes a revival of their hugely successful production “The Hermit of Fort Fisher” and another original work by the same playwright, as well as “The Laramie Project” and “Twelve Angry Men”—two shows that seem to becoming back into focus in the cultural debate. But to start by putting focus on the family with “Crimes of he Heart,” and end their season again with the same through A.R.Gurney’s “The Dining Room” seems incredibly appropriate. What happens within the family colors everything in our lives, and how we learn to love and communicate and hold each other close at the times we need it most. It makes this strange, confusing and at times tragic journey of life bearable. Saperstein and the cast capture this beautifully while reminding us sometimes a good laugh is the best weapon.