by SOPHIE KERMAN
There is a line between dark comedy and laughing at others’ misfortune, and the Guthrie‘s production of Crimes of the Heart has crossed it. This high-energy, highly theatrical interpretation of Beth Henley‘s 1978 Southern Gothic play gives the audience a healthy dose of belly laughs, and if that is what you want, then fine: but this is doing a great disservice to a script that is far darker than it is comic.
The play centers on three sisters who are defined, in many ways, by the men they have chosen not to spend their lives with. High-strung Lenny (Maggie Chestovich) is so convinced of her undesirability that she has broken things off with a boyfriend in Memphis, instead devoting her life to caring for an ailing grandfather. Meg (Georgia Cohen) left a severely injured boyfriend to pursue a singing career in California, while the youngest sister, Babe (Ashley Rose Montondo), has just shot her husband in the stomach in a botched attempt at murder.
All three women, with all of their present troubles, also carry deep scars from the past – a father who left them, a mother’s suicide, a cousin (Sarah Agnew) who won’t stop reminding them of their various family scandals. At its core, the play is the story of the sisters’ individual and collective attempts at liberating themselves from their psychological and material barriers. The humor of their personality quirks and mis-steps belies a deep undercurrent of desperation. In its focus on sisterly bonds and the need for support during difficult times, Crimes of the Heart has the potential to be a powerful look at the ways women have overcome obstacles while striving for self-realization.
You might not see any of this, however, beneath all the noise and fuss of the larger-than-life characterizations. Lenny is played as hysterical, beside herself with tears at the drop of a hat, while Babe rebounds from bad news with a bubbly enthusiasm that doesn’t do justice to her predicament. The entire cast appears to be competent, and it is refreshing to see a play that showcases talented female actors in meaty roles. However, the show isn’t calibrated in a way that allows the actors to delve into their characters’ vulnerabilities to the same extent that it exhibits their prowess at slapstick comedy.
Crimes of the Heart doesn’t need to be a downer; it is thematically interesting, and there are plenty of moments of tenderness and humor amid the tragic undertones. But Marcela Lorca‘s direction has veered so far to the other extreme that I found myself surrounded by laughter as one character desperately tried to commit suicide. When we are invited to laugh at real mental anguish, it becomes clear that some of the play’s artistic integrity (and maybe our own sense of compassion) is being sacrificed to please crowds.
Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley. At the Guthrie Theater, May 5 – June 15, 2014 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $29-71 at http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/crimes_heart.