Review: Dark Comedy, ‘Crimes of the Heart’ Shines in Curio Theatre’s Revival

Rachel Gluck and Tessa Kuhn in “Crimes of the Heart” at Curio Theatre. Photo by Rebecca Gudelanas.

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

West Philadelphia’s Curio Theatre Company is embarking on Season #13—but no superstition here. The focus of the three productions on the company’s slate for 2017—2018 is on plays by and about women. Starting things off is a revival of Beth Henley’s 1978 dark comedy, CRIMES OF THE HEART. Directed by Founding Member and Managing Director Gay Carducci, the production runs  to Dec. 9 in the Calvary Center at 47th Street & Baltimore Avenue. Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8pm; however, there will be no show on Thanksgiving Day, November 23.

CRIMES OF THE HEART is an interesting choice for the theatre’s goal to highlight more female-driven stories. Though forty years old, it’s quite timely—I mean, let’s face, family dynamics haven’t really change that much. The play deals with the MaGrath sisters, Lenny, Meg and Babe, as they face yet another bump in their lives. I have long been of the opinion that there is no such thing as a “functional family.” But if Southern authors and playwrights are to be believed, people in that region of the country take dysfunction to levels their Northern counterparts cannot begin to match. Such is the case with the MaGrath sisters.

Set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi five years after Hurricane Camille, CRIMES was a co-winner of that year’s “Great American Play” contest at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, receiving its World Premiere there in 1979. It subsequently moved to Off-Broadway and then opened on Broadway in 1981. At that time, audiences were taken aback by the playwright’s use of humor to present the tragic and grotesque occurrences in the Magrath family, but I think nowadays, following such fair as Six Feet Under, Arrested Development and Better Things, it’s much more accepted. Henley’s works have Southern gothic feel to them yes, but there is so much more going on.

Alternately poignant and gut-wrenchingly funny, CRIMES OF THE HEART is basically a character study of these three women finding their way as a family after the early loss of their parents, and carving their place as women in a world that valued very superficial aspects of females as a whole. At the time it was written, the US was still reeling from the shock of Watergate, fighting in Viet Nam continued and the Civil Rights Movement still struggled to achieve equality for blacks. Add the Women’s Liberation Movement to that and the MaGrath sisters’ story is a perfect glimpse into the zeitgeist of the Southern psyche.

Curio’s cast is pitch-perfect from top to bottom, presenting fully realized characters that never devolve into caricature. The relationships are totally believable and quite engrossing to watch. Under the more than able direction of Gay Carducci, CRIMES OF THE HEART sings. Eldest sister Lenny has stayed in the family home, caring for the domineering grandfather who raised them. Rachel Gluck does a beautiful job of portraying the character’s loneliness while also mining the comedic elements of Lenny’s inability to stand up to their pushy, judgmental cousin Chick Boyle. Leslie Berkowitz is snarkiness personified as she sashays in and out to deliver Chick’s digs at the MaGrath girls. Colleen Hughes is all brass and sass as prodigal sister, Meg. But Hughes also deftly reveals Meg’s deep frustration at how her life has gone so far. The scene opposite Harry Slack’s beautifully underplayed Doc Porter tugs at your heart. Though small, Slack makes the most of the role of Doc. He subtly gives hints that the character is still in love with Meg, but also loves his wife and family. It’s a nicely nuanced performance that elicits laughs and empathy.

Youngest sister Babe is all sweetness and innocence; in the hands of Tessa Kuhn, Babe is someone you just want to protect from life’s cruelties. Babe is angelic, and yet says such wise things—Kuhn captures this wonderfully. Chase Byrd is adorably dorky as lawyer Barnette Lloyd. A Southerner by birth, Byrd skillfully blends Barnette’s awkwardness with his sense of rightness in a truly funny way.

The story unfolds in the kitchen of the “ancestral” home of the sisters’ maternal grandfather—an old farmhouse. Gay Carducci keeps the action flowing, fully utilizing Paul Kuhn’s deceptively simple set that includes running water in the sink. Ms. Carducci has gently guided her ensemble through the trials and tribulations of the MaGraths; the situations are absurd, but the people she and the cast present the audience are totally grounded and 3-dimensional. That is not often the case in plays that veer towards the darkly farcical; the entire company is to be praised for “keeping it 100.”

And score another hit for Barrymore-nominated Kuhn—he’s created another solid scenic design that serves the story perfectly. Tim Martin provides excellent lighting that gives a great sense of passing time—as well as providing some visually intriguing scene transitions. A new name to me, sound designer Damien Figueras hits all the right notes with his 60s/70s girl-groups pre-show music and then deftly underscores the action and scenic changes. A couple of the sound effects weren’t real clear to me, but that’s minor compared to the overall effect. Aetna Gallagher provided the cast with terrific 70s inspired costumes that editorialize a bit on each character.

CRIMES OF THE HEART is as much about what isn’t said as it is about what is…. At one point, Meg calls their father a bastard, but never expands on that. He deserted the family when the girls were young, and one wonders if there was physical abuse involved. Sadly, their mother was destroyed by this and hung herself. So, the play also is an examination of the after-effects of suicide on those left behind. None of these sisters seems capable of obtaining or sustaining a healthy relationship. Another aspect of the story deals with taking risks. Meg took a chance on having a singing career and ran off to Los Angeles to pursue her dream—she fails, but at least she risked. Babe risks a comfortable lifestyle and respectability because she is so utterly miserable with a domineering husband. Her choice of how to handle that is way out there, but it seemed the only option to her at the time. Lenny has lived her life caring for a cantankerous old man who made her feel inadequate and unlovable. In the end, she finally musters up some courage and takes a risk. One is left hoping the events depicted in the play are the catalyst that gets these three women to move on and find happiness.

If you want to laugh and cry and empathize, hurry to West Philly and catch Curio Theatre Company’s highly engaging, well-acted production of CRIMES OF THE HEART.

If You Go: Curio performs at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, located at 4740 Baltimore Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19143.  The production runs now through December 9th, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm. There will be no performance on November 23 however, due to the Thanksgiving holiday. For information regarding tickets, directions, etc., visit www.curiotheatre.org or call the Box Office at 215-525-1350.