When “Crimes of the Heart” begins performances this weekend at Johnson County Community College, the production will not, technically speaking, mark Darren Sextro’s debut as a professional director — but in a sense it is.
“It’s my largest professional production,” Sextro said. “And I will tell you, it doesn’t feel much different from community theater.”
That indicates, among other things, what some folks in the theater community have been saying in recent years — that community theater productions increasingly measure up to professional standards.
To date Sextro has staged two professional shows with Equity actors — “The House of Yes” at the Fishtank Performance Studio and Yasmina Reza’s “Art” at a theater in Ouray, Colo. But “Crimes of the Heart” is his 18th production since 2006.
During that time Sextro has emerged as a proficient director of community theater productions, including shows for the Barn Players in Johnson County, the Bell Road Barn Players north of the Missouri River, the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center and the Olathe Community Theatre Association. Many who saw his production of “August: Osage County” at the Barn Players regarded it as a professional-quality show.
Sextro said he thought “Crimes of the Heart” had been on the short list of the Kansas City Actors Theatre’s artistic committee for a few years. And when he heard it planned to do it on the current season, he formally tossed his hat in the ring.
Beth Henley’s dramatic comedy claimed the 1981 Pulitzer Prize and the following year won a Tony Award for its Broadway production. It depicts three sisters — Babe, Meg and Lenny — who gather at the family home in Mississippi after Babe has shot her abusive husband. The KCAT production brings together a group of distinguished Kansas City character actors. Cinnamon Schultz, Manon Halliburton and Melinda McCrary play the sisters, and David Fritts, Jan Rogge and Coleman Crenshaw fill important supporting roles.
Henley’s stage directions set the play on or near the 30th birthday of the oldest sister, Lenny. The KCAT production, however, has aged-up the story by casting mature actresses. The choice brings to mind the 2010 KCAT production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” in which Mark Robbins and Jim Birdsall reprised roles they had originally played in their 20s. But that was a conceptual approach, and Sextro said there’s nothing in the script that locks in the characters’ ages.
“We scrubbed the age references out of it, which is not hard to do,” he said. “Age-agnostic is what we’ve been doing.”
“Crimes of the Heart” closes KCAT’s 2014-15 season, but it reflects an effort by the theater company to expand its audience base. For the first time, KCAT is staging a show in the Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College.
“That was a very conscious discussion on the part of Kansas City Actors Theatre to experiment with doing one of their productions in southern Johnson County,” Sextro said. “They wanted to see if it further expands their core audience, and I think they made a conscious decision to program something that was accessible. Polsky is a middle-sized theater. It’s a great theater space.”