When the lights come up on Center Stage’s new production of Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart,” we’re alone with Lenny MaGrath, the eldest of three sisters whose travails plunge us deep into a world of Southern Gothic gallows humor.
It’s Lenny’s 30th birthday, and as she sits alone at the steel and enamel kitchen table in her family home in Hazelhurst, Miss., you are immediately there with her, feeling her exhaustion, the Gulf heat and humidity, the decades of life and death that have come in through their screen door offering regifted chocolates, pecans that fell from a tree into a neighbor’s yard, or news of the death of a family horse struck by lightning.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play is quick and sharp, and the tight cast of six under the direction of Joan M. Lyons pulls out all the stops for this production, playing it wild and emotional, gritty and real, aided by Ms. Lyon’s great period costumes and set, and Ben Miller’s warm lighting. The cast seems to be having a ball with this material.
The story takes place five years after Hurricane Camille, which battered the Gulf Coast in 1969, and the hurricane is just one of many unseen characters that shaped these three sisters’ lives.
Their father abandoned them and their mother made national news when she hanged herself along with the family cat. Their mother’s death has left all three women on the edge, wondering about their own mental stability, which is shaky at best.
To top off this birthday cake, their Old Granddaddy is in the hospital, and the rotary phone on the kitchen countertop brings regular bleak updates on his deteriorating condition.
As the show opens, youngest sister Babe, married to a state senator, has just shot her husband in the stomach because she “didn’t like his looks,” after which she made herself a pitcher of lemonade because she was thirsty. Sister Meg is coming back from chasing a singing career in California so the three can be together and plan for Babe’s exoneration.
Their cousin, Chick Boyle, bursts through the screen door, disturbing Lenny, who it seems would be content to just roll herself a joint, sing happy birthday to herself and have a quiet, spinsterish afternoon.
Chick, played with great ridiculous pomp and smarminess by Kristin Whiting, sets the tone straight out, demanding the petite pantyhose she’d asked Lenny to pick up for her trip to the jail to get Babe, and then shoving her large frame into them as the pantyhose rips and runs and she blames cheap modern materials for their inability to handle her girth.
With big hair, a big voice and a big bunch of blame to dish around like pecan pie to all three of her sister cousins, Chick is not so easy to push out the back door, though everyone tries.
Josephine Wallace, fresh off her starring role as Gabriella in Center Stage’s fall production of “Boeing, Boeing,” plays Lenny with an understated grace that anchors this production — despite her sisters’ antics about her shrunken ovary and her Lonely Hearts Club yearnings, Lenny is the core holding this family together, and no matter how tired it makes her, she seems determined to carry on this role for the rest of her life.
WPPB radio star Bonnie Grice jumps right into the role of Meg, bringing California carelessness and a bottle of bourbon home to ignite her family’s dangerous spark. The middle child, she offers madcap moderately helpful counsel and tenderness, along with a pack of lies about her non-existent singing career. In fact, she admits to Lenny, she’s been working as a receptionist at a dog food company for the past several months, even as she tells Old Granddaddy that she will soon be appearing on the Johnny Carson show.
Wide-eyed Babe is the picture of innocence and lemonade, played by Tina Marie Realmuto, who is returning to the Center Stage stage after a series of New York performances and an MFA from the Actors Studio Drama School. Ms. Realmuto lets the whirl of her family’s madness in and it envelopes her like a demon. But, somewhere, through this madness, she finds the secret of why their mother hanged the family cat.
The men in this show take a back seat to this mad sisterhood, but they both turn in fine performances.
Mark Strecker, who previously played the sheriff in Center Stage’s 2014 production of “August, Osage County,” brings a perfectly soft-spoken tone to neighbor Doc Porter, a shuffling, now-married working man who loves Meg, despite the fact that his leg was crushed when the roof caved in on them after Meg insisted they ride out Hurricane Camille. They were lovers back then, but Meg abandoned him for California when he was crippled. He’s recovered now, and they’re both bound for trouble as their old flame rekindles.
Deyo Trowbridge, an East Hampton High School graduate who’s returned home after studying acting in college, brings a great flair to his role as Babe’s lawyer, Barnette Lloyd, who takes the case because he liked the way Babe looked at him when she sold him a pound cake at a long-ago church bazaar, and because he has a passionate personal vendetta against her husband.
These quirks and twists of character make this play sing, and everyone on stage here seems to be comfortable and growing into their roles as this masterful script enters into their own hearts.
“Crimes of the Heart” continues at Center Stage at the Southampton Cultural Center through Sunday, Jan 28, with performances on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
General admission is $25 and student and group rates available. Brunch/theater and dinner theater packages available at www.scc-arts.org or by calling 631.287.4377.