BWW Review: CRIMES OF THE HEART is Guilty of Pulling at Your Heartstrings.
Birmingham Festival Theatre has put up a riveting production of CRIMES OF THE HEART by Beth Henley. If you are unfamiliar, it is a complex southern American family drama with darkly comedic elements reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. The plot wraps around three dynamically different sisters, Meg, Babe, and Lenny. Each has separate personalities molded from growing up within a highly dysfunctional family. I can be honest and say I am no stranger to these dynamics. If asked I bet you can make a lengthy list of your own family drama. The stories that families try to hide are exactly where this play goes. This approach to exposing emotion is in full force in Henley's script. Director Ellise Mayor brings together a cast that masterfully delivers the emotional issues at the heart of this play. They each bring performances that are very relatable. The play fearlessly tackles the intense cause and effect of issues like suicide, women's empowerment, domestic abuse, race, adultery and mental illness. Mayor treats the script with much respect. "So many women respond to what is in the script. I wanted it to be done the right way." Her careful approach is felt and very successful.
The play centers on the day the McGrath sisters reunite at their grandfather's home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in 1974. Before you break out the cake and balloons, this reunion is not a joyous occasion. It is a gathering resulting from tragedy. The youngest sister Babe has shot her abusive husband and their grandfather is in the hospital. The reunion lights a deep-rooted fuse in each of the sisters. They fire off explosive words and emotions that hit each other like dynamite. Bit by bit the sisters expose years of emotional trauma. As the play progresses they begin peeling the layers of the onion made of their deep-rooted issues.
The talented cast gives heart to each of the roles. Babe the youngest sister is the center of much of the plot. Actress Virginia Barr brings her to life. Her approach delivers a successful performance of a complex and troubled woman. Commenting on the role Barr says, "Babe is so naïve. Things make sense to her that don't to me." Babe is troubled and seeking a way to get out the horrible situation she has gotten herself into. Barr describes Babes difficult journey as "She goes into moments when everything is crashing down on her."
Dana Porter gives a roller coaster performance in playing the middle sister Meg.Her character returns to her humble home from her not so budding singing career out in Hollywood. She is passionate, brash and selfish. Porter plays Meg's many levels with seamless charm and emotion. Her energetic performance makes you feel sad, embarrassed and happy for Meg.
Loveable actress Camille Spratling plays the oldest sister Lenny. Her performance embraces a good woman who is standing on a bottle of pent up emotions and neurosis. Lenny is the big sister trying to sort out her own life and dealing with the demons her sisters carry. She is a complex woman walking a thin line to a nervous breakdown. Spratling tells me "Lenny finds a voice that is comfortable expressing herself when she needs to." Her commitment to the character is amazing. She gives a performance that pulls on your heart stings. Spratling finds Lenny's journey to be "Exciting inspiring, as humans to be reminded that we can grow, we can change. All of us can challenge ourselves. That to me is the most fun."
The bond of sisterhood is essential for this play to work. Being the middle of three boys I felt the scripts familiar tone and tension of sibling rivalry. After the play begins you are automatically convinced these three actresses are actual sisters. Spratling comments "for us the interplay with the other actresses feel like we are real sisters on stage." The actresses react to each other and click together naturally on stage. Barr says "Its fun feeding off the great acting that Camille and Dana are doing."
Rounding out the cast is the annoying cousin Chick played with much hilarious abrasiveness by Katherine Hosford. Meg's former lover Doc Porter is played with subtle tension by David Seale. Babe's lawyer Barnett Lloyd is played by Blake Tanner. He gives a warm mixture of Atticus Finch and Marty McFly.
The sisters reveal pain that has plagued them for decades. Each explains how it has corroded relationships and inner peace. Throughout the play tension of sibling rivalry, jealousy and love are exposed with strong detail. You may find dialogue in the play mirroring conversations you have had or desperately want to have with someone in your family. The audience finds a connection and perhaps some similarities after meeting this family. You will leave reflecting in how, like the McGrath sisters we are all guilty of CRIMES OF THE HEART in our own special way.
Crimes of the Heart is playing at Birmingham Festival Theatre.
1901 1/2 11th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205
It runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays May 4 to May 27 8pm (2pm Sunday Matinee on May 14 + 21)
Tickets and more info at www.bftonline.org or at (205) 933-2383
Header photo credit - Stewart Edmonds.