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Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

February 28, 2007, 12:00 am
By
Crimes of the Heart goes crazy for women's post-lib.


Man trouble drives the action, but stays in the wings, as the three McGrath sisters take center stage in Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart.

An influential Southern Gothic comedy in which suicide, attempted murder, adultery, mental illness and spousal abuse provide lots of yuks, Henley's version of girl power leans hard on ***image1***sisterhood as salvation. The tangles and resolutions mark what was, at the time, an emerging post-feminist ethos in which women could be as girly and boy-crazy-or simply crazy-as they wanted and simultaneously be strong and independent and "find themselves." Essentially a middle-class fantasy, as are most American comedies, Crimes' goal is restorative, conservative and deeply conventional. Anything subversive or nonconformist ultimately adheres to fairly traditional roles or outcomes for women, except, by a peculiarly optimistic magic, women garner the added bonus of empowerment along the way.

The College of Santa Fe's production, staged by the performing arts department, sizzles with energy and is shaped by careful attention to the rhythms and opportunities in Henley's script. Gallows humor morphs into pathos and directly shifts to satire or farce, then to sentiment. The mercurial flashes of tragic ache and comic perspective flash by so quickly that the audience suspends not only disbelief but also judgment.

It's satisfyingly humorous that the addled, spoiled, developmentally arrested Babe (Charlotte Fox) has shot her husband in the stomach, for example, even before we find out that he's a wife beater (which, of course, in keeping with the Thelma & Louise school of women's rights, makes it not only funny, but just). Meg (Laura Taylor) is less sympathetic; tellingly, her offenses are that she's gorgeous and talented, and she abandoned her man and moved to California.

The oldest sister, Lenny, played with sustained, fierce concentration by CSF senior Mary Beth Lindsey, walks a thin line between martyrdom and practicality.

Lindsey's talents are many: a honed physicality perfect for the stage, a subtlety that underpins the broad strokes painted by Henley and a razor-sharp sense of comic timing. Lenny is a role that can easily tank; there's a dangerous amount of whining, coupled with unquestioned caretaking of a family full of "nervous" women and an infirm patriarch referred to as "Old ***image2***Granddaddy." Feminist outrage would perhaps agitate for Lenny to throw it all over and maybe burn the house down; Henley's '80s, Reagan-era version hews closer to tradition. Thankfully, Lindsey goes easy on the pathos and lovingly portrays a woman with more dimensions than Henley gave her.

Fox's Babe and Taylor's Meg are equally strong in their challenging roles. Vanessa O'Brien plays the villainess Chick, a bossy and gossipy cousin, with great verve, though a heightened, broadly satirical approach might have provided the sisters with a more wicked foil. Sam Quinn-Dinowitz as Doc Porter, Meg's old flame, and Miles Cooper as Barnette Lloyd, Babe's lawyer, are overshadowed-partly a result of Henley's script, which offers the two supporting male roles fairly thin chances, and partly a matter of focus. Despite occasional lapses, the ensemble repeatedly nails scene after scene of difficult and unlikely developments.

Production values are strong, including excellent lighting and set design. The two-and-a-half-hour performance goes by quickly, with many fine moments along the way; and, in keeping with the sentimental comedies of the era, the resolutions pull at the heartstrings yet go down easy. Like Babe's favorite drink: lemonade, with plenty of sugar.

 

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