It is some time in the 1950s in steamy small town Mississippi when three sisters reunite under difficult circumstances. They’ve grown up under dysfunctional circumstances, raised by their granddaddy after their mother died in a double suicide with her cat. Lenny has stayed at home caring for the old man who is now at death’s doorstep in hospital. Babe married but is now in deep trouble having shot her husband in the stomach. Meg, having fled town after abandoning her boyfriend in the ruins of a hurricane, returns from a failed showbiz career in Los Angeles. They already carry a lot of emotional baggage and now are plunged into fresh crises fraught by revealed secrets and the general spite of Chick, their meddlesome cousin who lives nearby. It’s one helluva kitchen-sink drama by American playwright Beth Henley and she has surely loaded that sink with dirty dishes. The play is distinguished by a string of top US awards quite clearly deserved by its artful layering of characters, its evocative setting, and its intense tangle of humour and emotions.
The Rep’s very skilled set designer Ole Wiebkin brings the American Deep South onto the Arts Theatre’s stage with a masterpiece of sprawling domesticity complete with a squeaky-hinged fly-wire door, running water, and misty windows looking onto a suggested world of fecund old fruit trees.
It is Lenny’s domain and it is her birthday when the play opens. Georgia Stockham embodies this seemingly tragic character, a refugee from her secret infertility, bullied by her cousin and fearful for the fates of her family members. Her stay-at-home life had become drearily solitary until the cataclysm of the family reunion.
A stridency of sisterly squeals and laughter and frequent phone calls fill the stage as the sisters gather. Bottles of coke are consumed endlessly and protagonists come and go: principally Meg’s old boyfriend, Doc; and Babe’s new lawyer, Barnette Lloyd.
The cast does well overall with their Mississippi accents.
While Allison Scharber brings a ditsy emotional big dipper to life as Babe, who has shot her husband in the stomach and keeps a secret black lover, it is somehow Cheryl Douglas as the self-centred failed singer, Meg, whose arresting stage presence really sparks the sisterly chemistry. Damaged souls all, they rile and reconcile, jest and protest, accuse and confess in a wild ride of emotional extremes. These are juicy roles for actresses and, with Deborah Proeve as nasty Chick Boyle, the Rep has found a good set. Similarly the two Mississippi males are nicely cast. Adam Schultz, looking like Tom Wolfe in his straw hat and plantation suit, asserts an aura of suave dependability with just a streak of slippery hidden agenda. Of course, it is hard to find Steve Marvanek giving anything other than a fine performance. Here, as Meg’s once-abandoned lover, he achieves a power of understated poignancy with almost copybook use of dramatic restraint. He is just a jewel in this production.
Pandemic lockdown threw a huge spanner in director Geoff Brittain’s original plans for this show and it had to be put on hold for the covid year of darkened theatres. Now, with a partially altered cast and most of The Rep’s tried and true production team, it has risen to be the first full onstage Rep production for 2021, albeit still with covid seating.
As for many complex, multi-character plays, Crimes of the Heart takes its time in filling out the strands which will weave the plot together. Hence, the production may seem slow-developing initially. In the second act its intensity has developed, the cast has relaxed into fully-fledged and now familiar characters, and by curtain time it has proven to be a rather satisfying experience.
Review by Samela Harris