The current OdysseyStage Theatre presentation of Crimes of the Heart rises and falls on the comic and dramatic strengths of its (mostly) young and inexperienced cast. Simply put, Jackson, Mississippi native Beth Henley's quirky comedy about the Magrath sisters of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, requires much more nuanced and subtly shaded characterizations than the current cast can give them. Consequently, the present production of this 1981 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is never more than mildly amusing when its quaint characters, and their hilarious predicaments, should elicit gales of laughter from even the most sober-sided theater goers.
Ann Marie Thomas keeps Lenny Magrath, the stay-at-home sister saddled with caring for Old Granddaddy, so low key and on such an even keel that the casual audience member might think that she is merely a doormat. She is not. There are powerful emotions coming to a boil under Lenny's seemingly placid exterior. She is facing spinsterhood without ever having a real boyfriend; and she is about to celebrate her 30th birthday, alone and forgotten, while old Granddaddy is in the hospital, once again lingering at death's door.
Then Lenny's highly strung married sister Babe (Lauren Walker) shoots her wealthy and powerful husband, state senator Zachary Botrelle, for no discernable reason. (All Babe will say is she shot Zachary because she "didn't like his looks.") So, Lenny — suddenly embroiled in a second life-or-death family crisis — summons home Meg Magrath (Collette Rutherford), the hard-drinking prodigal sister who journeyed all the way to California to launch her singing career, but soon found herself forced work days in the office of a dog food factory to keep her artistic ambitions on life support.
If Lenny is a "rock" in times of family crisis, Babe is the wild child of the family, and Meg is the sadder-but-wiser older sister. Ann Marie Thomas, Lauren Walker, and Collette Rutherford give pleasant but superficial performances. The notorious Magrath sisters, whose mother made national news by hanging herself and her cat in Old Granddaddy's basement, are much more complicated women than they are portrayed here.
Their snooty cousin Chick (Carey Sveen) is, by contrast a silly, shallow woman only concerned with how associating with all those Magraths, whom she regularly dismisses as "cheap Christmas trash," will hurt her chances to rise to the top of the local Ladies' League. Sveen is amusing as Chick the Stick. Carroll Credle has his moments as Doc, an old boyfriend of Meg's, now married, who once again finds himself feeling single in the presence of the former love of his life. And Robert Bloomer provides comic relief as Barnette, Babe's eager-beaver defense attorney who is only defending Babe because it affords him an opportunity to practice his personal vendetta against Babe's nasty and mean big-shot husband.
Costume designer Sheryle Criswell, lighting and sound designer Larry Evans, and property mistress Candace Rohm make commendable contributions to the OdysseyStage presentation of Crimes of the Heart, and guest director and scenic designer John Paul Middlesworth creates a fine set. But when Middlesworth fails to get sufficiently fully rounded performances from the three actresses playing the Magrath sisters, he fails to show Lenny, Babe, and Meg in all their ragged glory as three misfits in a closed-minded small town. Without digging deep into those wonderfully eccentric and multilayered characters, Crimes of the Heart becomes little more than another sitcom-style look at the high-spirited women of the New South — pleasant enough, but not the masterpiece that Beth Henley penned.
OdysseyStage Theatre presents Crimes of the Heart Friday-Saturday, Nov. 21-22, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 23, at 3 p.m. in the Robert E. Seymour Theater (behind Squid's), 400 S. Elliot Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $12 ($10 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/732-2408. OdysseyStage Theatre: http://www.odysseystagetheatre.org/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=4138. Crimes of the Heart (1986 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090886/.