Kansas City Actors Theatre finds the fun — or what’s funny, at least — in a dysfunctional Southern Gothic family with its production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Crimes of the Heart.”
Darren Sextro, making his directorial debut with KCAT, moves the play to October of 1980 from 1974 and casts older actresses rather than the 20-somethings of the original. He captures the seemingly incongruous humor in a family of eccentrics dealing with loneliness, shattered illusions and violence.
Indeed, it has been “a real bad day” for the three Magrath sisters in the small Mississippi town of Hazlehurst. Melinda McCrary captures the yearning of missed opportunities in eldest sister Lenny, who has become the caretaker of Granddaddy in the family home. She’s the embodiment of dowdiness, a frumpy female of undetermined age whose birthday has been forgotten by everyone except a cousin she doesn’t even like. Not only that, Lenny soon learns that her beloved horse has died after being struck by lightning.
McCrary opens the play with a poignant scene of Lenny celebrating her birthday alone, making a wish as she blows out a single candle on a cookie. She’s interrupted by a visit from snobbish cousin Chick, played by Jan Rogge, who has a hilarious bit of physical comedy as she shakes, wriggles and shimmies her way into a pair of pantyhose, size “extra petite.”
We soon learn that near-tragedy has struck the sisters as the youngest, appropriately nicknamed Babe, has shot her abusive husband because, she claims, she “didn’t like his looks.” Cinnamon Schultz imbues Babe with a vulnerable, child-like innocence; she seems unaware of the consequences of her actions, whether shooting her husband or carrying on an affair with an African-American teenager.
Prodigal daughter Meg, played by Manon Halliburton, has returned from her attempted singing career in Hollywood, Calif., where she has been working in a pet food store and having a nervous breakdown. Halliburton plays Meg with all the confidence of the Southern bad girl. She smokes and drinks and cavorts with her married ex-boyfriend and does a good job of ticking off her sisters.
David Fritts gives Doc (does anyone in the South go by their actual given name?), Meg’s ex-boyfriend, an easy likability with an undercurrent of sadness. He seems to harbor no ill will toward Meg for insisting they stay in Biloxi during Hurricane Camille, where his leg was crushed and his dream of medical school shattered. The line about his two “half-Yankee children” is one of my favorites of the play.
Coleman Crenshaw shines in his KCAT debut as Barnette, the lawyer who defends Babe out of his puppy dog adoration for her and his personal vendetta against her politician husband.
Georgianna Londre Buchanan’s costumes capture the personality of each of the sisters, with Lenny’s drab, nondescript clothes, Babe’s pretty dresses and Meg’s bright colors – a red blouse in the first act, an emerald green wrap-around dress and knee-high boots in the second.
Edward Matthew Walter’s set conjures up the time period with its white appliances and paneled walls, but it’s the Early American kitchen table and chairs on the braided rug that’s the literal heart of the kitchen and of the play, where the sisters dissolve in a hysterical fit of giggles that finally reminds them of the bonds they share.
Sound designer Shawn Leistico mixes Nanci Griffith recordings that have a twangy heart-break feel and that, Sextro said, sound like he imagines Meg did when she sang.
The play, originally written as three acts, is presented with one intermission. The first “half” feels a bit long, but by the end of the show, I hated to say goodbye to the sisters Magrath.