The City Theater of Austin brings Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart to life. The 1979 play, winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and Tony Awards Best Play nominee, explores human ambition amid familial dysfunction, flawed decision-making, and external tragedy.
At the tale’s core are three sisters in their 20s: Lenora a.k.a. Lenny, the eldest; Margaret a.k.a. Meg, the stereotypical “middle child;” and Rebecca a.k.a. Babe, the baby of the family. The trio reunites at their family home in southern Mississippi to the confluence of twin calamities; their grandfather, the family’s only remaining elder, is in ICU, while Babe has landed in serious legal trouble, all on Lenny’s 30th birthday. The three women confront how to move forward and remain a cohesive family unit while living very different lives. Each privately deals with the consequences of her past poor choices. Though the emotional bond among them is powerful in all directions, the women keep terrible secrets from one another and harbor suppressed childhood resentments. Of course all of these are revealed in turn, often with hilarious results. Henley’s script manages to confront disaster and difficult interpersonal relationships with wit and an underpinning current of unconditional and mutual love among the characters.
Kristin Chiles plays the longsuffering Lenny Magrath, bedrock of the family who has for years sacrificed her own dreams on the altar of responsibility. Publicly demure and humorless, Lenny has private moments of great hope, shared only with the audience or in her most intimate conversations with a sister. Chiles accesses these twin emotions adroitly, making us truly care about this woman and wish a better life for her than she has known so far.
Hanna Lane Farrell plays the youngest sibling Babe Magrath Botrelle, victimized emotionally and physically by her husband, a powerful state politician. Though often difficult to comprehend the rationale of her actions, Farrell brings such likeability to the role that we wish for her sake that she would stop landing herself more deeply in trouble with every deed.
Contrasted against the two tragic sisters, Shannon Embry plays Meg Magrath, the free-spirited middle sibling with dreams of stardom, with such delightfully effervescent energy that she dominates the room anytime she’s onstage. Meg has her own problems as well, which she refuses to acknowledge, and moves happily forward, rendering them irrelevant.
Samantha Brewer gives us a wonderfully entertaining Chick Boyle, the sisters’ meddlesome cousin, complete with Deep South Dixie “Bless your heart” charm that scantly conceals her judgmental attitude toward each of the Magraths.
The set, designed by director Rod Mechem, perfectly establishes the family’s main gathering spot, the kitchen of the Magrath family home in small-town Hazelhurst, Mississippi, with such authentic details as the many-paint-coated simple cabinets, a sun catcher in the window, and a wire-handled flyswatter hanging by the back door.
Crimes Of the Heart is playing to capacity audiences at City Theater, conveniently located along Airport Boulevard. The theater seats around 100 comfortably in rows of 10, so that even the end seats keep a near straight-on aspect to the stage, which means every seat is a good one. General Manager Andy Berkovky gives each guest individual attention as needed to ensure everyone’s experience is positive.
City Theatre Company, 3823 Airport Boulevard, Austin, Texas 78722