‘Crimes of the Heart’ at Gloucester Stage Company

04Sep12

After the burning intensity of their last two shows – 9 Circles and Master Harold… and the Boys – for its summer season finale, Gloucester Stage Company sends us off into the cool autumn with a comedy.

Set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart is a slice of Southern life, and its overriding message may be that despite petty annoyances and even great tragedy, we derive our greatest strength and reap life’s richest rewards when we come together as family.

Crimes of the Heart is not unlike Steel Magnolias, another comedy that deals with strong southern women facing tragedy by staying close and learning to laugh off each other’s irritating foibles.

In Crimes, the McGrath sisters could hardly be more different from each other.

Played by Liz Hayes, Lenny (short for Lenore) has put her own life on hold to take care of her aged and failing grandfather. In part due to her devotion, she has seldom dated, despite the fact that we meet her on her 30th birthday.

Meg (played by McCaela Donovan) is the glamorous sister who got out of town and moved to California with dreams of a career in show business. Meg abandoned aspiring physician Doc (played by Liam McNeill) when she left for California. Meg’s singing career didn’t pan out and she even lost her office job and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital out west. Doc’s married with children now, but he still seems to need some kind of closure with Meg.

Babe (Melody Madarasz) married the most successful lawyer in town (and a State Senator to boot). But he’s been physically and mentally abusive toward her and ultimately Babe shot him after he caught her fooling around with a local 15 year old. She meant to kill him but missed his heart and shot him in the stomach. He’s recovering in the hospital.

Young hot shot lawyer Barnett Lloyd (Will Keary) has a crush on Babe and succeeds in getting her released on bail, but she still faces prison if convicted of attempted murder.

We come in as the three sisters (interrupted periodically by their meddlesome cousin Chick (Lenni Kmiec), try to sort out what’s happened and why. We learn that there may be a history of mental illness in the family. Their mother hung herself in the basement when they were kids. Meg was the one who found her.

Like so many southern tales, the Crimes of the Heart features a cast of highly developed, colorful and quirky characters. But the play is also about the act of storytelling. Each character has his or her own story which of course is intricately interwoven with all the others.

The entire cast of the GSC production, especially the actors playing the McGrath sisters, inhabit their characters so thoroughly that the audience can’t help but identify with them and root for each to find some kind of happiness in life.

Director Carmel O’Reilly has not only assembled a talented professional cast, but Liz Hayes, who teaches voice and speech at the New England Conservatory, doubled as dialect coach helping the other actors fine tune their Mississippi drawls.

The set and props, from the 1970’s vintage stove and refrigerator (complete with metallic ice trays), and yellow rotary dial phone all add to the cozy atmosphere of small town life in 20th century America.

Crimes of the Heart is the kind of play that you can sit back and drink in like a tall mint julep and not have to work too hard at discerning some deep and momentous meaning. The epiphanies come to each character in small ways throughout the play, mixed in with the sorrow and the joy – just like real life.

And isn’t sharing that experience what good theater is all about?

Crimes of the Heart runs through September 16 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. and Sunday performances at 4 p.m. For tickets, go to GSC’s website or phone 978-281-4433.

[CRIMES OF THE HEART, by Beth Henley. Directed by Carmel O’Reilly. Set Design, Jenna McFarland-Lord. Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt. Lighting Design, Russ Swift. Sound Design, Brendan Marr. Production Stage Manager, Brendan Marr. Featuring McCaela Donovan, Liz Hayes, Will Keary, Lenni Kmiec, Melody Madarasz and Liam McNeill.]

All photos by Gary Ng.

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