The School of Drama at the University of Oklahoma opened a 5-day run of playwright Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” on Wednesday evening, July 15. Directed by Tom Huston Orr and Gretchen Hahn, the two and a half hour production is beautiful, cathartic, heart-felt and suspenseful.
Orr constructed the 70s-era southern kitchen and living room set at the 73-seat Lab Theatre in Old Science Hall, with help from a small summer stage crew and Hahn, the assistant director and stage manager. They complete Henley’s period piece with requisite mushroom paintings on wood, decorative flour tins, a Formica kitchen table, bell bottoms, converse and polyester pant suits. Orr, director of the Helmerich School of Drama at OU, curated the soundtrack of mostly lovesick Motown selections— a combination so pleasing, he jokingly claimed CDs would be on sale after the show. He is also responsible for the well-coordinated costumes that brightly translate the characters’ self-perception, familial and societal roles in their hometown Hazelhurst, Mississippi.
Four talented actors play a trio of strongly connected, emotionally-versatile sisters and their jealous, uptight girl-cousin. Their relationships, trials, traumas and joys weave together a laugh-out-loud tragicomedy. The characters’ visible quirks and rapport combine with Orr’s adept blocking and full usage of the stage to create the feeling of a real-live 48-hour reunion sleepover in the home of a truly troubled but secretly wise bunch. Lenora (30), Margaret (27) and Rebecca (24) Magrath come to life in equally passionate yet controlled measure as portrayed by recent OU Drama grads Jessie Mahon, Kelsey Godfrey and Chandler Ryan, respectively.
You will not doubt for a moment that Ryan has truly become Babe (Rebecca), the cheery, spacy, entertaining baby sister whose enthusiasm for life, love and saxophone are seemingly unscathed by the physical and psychological abuse she’s suffered at the hand of her lawyer husband Zackery. She’s out on bail after shooting him in the gut, and seems to care much less about her future and the ensuing trial than she does her sisters’ and her young lover’s well-being. Babe, in her yellow summer dresses, is the life of the party and always the one to assuage others’ suffering. But privately, she fears being committed to a mental institution by her husband, and vows to die by her own hand rather than go willingly.
Mahon plays a sensitive, quirky, melancholic Lenny (Lenora) whose rooted stability and consistent kindness make her an adequate, if unintentionally goofy, surrogate mother for her two younger sisters. They’ve lost nearly everyone in their lives except for one another. Their mother committed suicide by hanging herself and her cat when the girls were young. Old Granddaddy who raised them has had a stroke and is now in the hospital close to death. Lenny had a lover once briefly, but she gave him up, assuming he could never love her, on account of her barrenness.
Meg (Margaret) doesn’t keep lovers for long— they make her feel trapped, like family, like her dead-end singing career. Maybe she doesn’t stay close with folks because she’d rather only worry about herself— she’s a handful. Any criticism or challenge sends her grasping for another cigarette, another Coca-Cola, another swig of bourbon, a little fresh air. What she lacks in calm and stability, she makes up for in free-spiritedness and good-timing. She’s home for a visit from Los Angeles where she’s lived for years in pursuit of a dream.
Except for her peasant top and fringed leather purse, Meg’s not your typical southern hippy-vamp-gone-Hollywood. She’s much less messy and tragic, more composed and empathetic. She seems to represent the spirit of the 1970s woman: a burgeoning, hard-won independence, a slight selfishness pushing against the selfless martyrdom before her, and a determination rooted in curiosity and possibility more than practicality and obligation.
As the sisters reveal their various adult troubles, their capacity to accept and encourage one another quickly blossoms. During the final scene, all death wishes, intrusive phone calls and visitors disappear. Meg and Babe present a lovely birthday cake to Lenny, who makes a big wish before blowing out the candles. We expect she's wishing for more scenes like this one, surrounded by her sweet, tragic siblings; for the continued ability to cheer them and house them even when she can't protect them from internal demons and the cruel world. Around the kitchen table, the ladies celebrate what they have while they still have it: cake, lemonade and a triangle of sisterly love, laughter, jealousy, teasing, encouragement, and resilience.
Performances continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a 2:00 p.m. matinee Sunday, July 19. Each of the first two acts is followed by a 10-minute intermission. Arrive early for best seating.
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