Crimes of the Heart: The (very) Hilarious Side of Tragedy

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Set in the Deep South, Crimes of the Heart at the Guthrie explores the comic threads that run through tragic moments, the mundane elements of life, and the often baffling bond of sisterhood.

Chekov would be proud of writer Beth Henley. She presents a cast of people, with whom even us Yankees can identify, in very real, immediate, if slightly odd, circumstances. But unlike Chekov, or the majority of theater (classical or otherwise), there is not a romantic interest driving this story – how incredibly refreshing! An entire play that deals with the ups and downs of everyday, and extraordinary, circumstance, without falling into the pit of loss of love, and the “joy and redemption” of finding it again.

Though present as no more than an undertone, love still exists in Crimes of the Heart. But, Ms. Henley weaves it beautifully into the background of the play where it is allowed to perfume rather than mask the true actions and motivations of the characters. We discover the strengths and weaknesses of the sisters, the pitfalls and love of their relationship with one another, and the inherent power of human beings to persevere and overcome the worst that befalls them with the help of those who may eat your birthday present but love you more than life itself.

Crimes of the Heart is about women – real women. Three recently reunited sisters each suffer in their own way: one is a failed singer who comes home from L.A, another is on the verge of spinsterhood after spending years taking care of the grandfather who adopted the sisters after their mother hung herself (along with her cat), and the other is the happy ditz who just so happened to shoot her husband right in the stomach. Their struggles are the kind that any of us can face, and most can say they have a friend or family member who has. The actors, though sometimes bordering on caricature in their portrayal of their characters, bring the audience intimately into their struggle.

The absurdity and exaggeration of the physical and vocal comedy of the show is nothing shy of brilliant and hilarious. With the exception of a couple of characters who fail to draw us into caring at all about them or what happens to them, the rest of the cast will keep you laughing, on the verge of tears, for most of the show. Thankfully they deter little from the quality and are all but forgotten whenever they leave the stage and the audience leaves the theater (still chuckling to themselves over the hundred moments of comedy genius they just witnessed).

Though the events that drive the story along are tragic, there is not a single moment when the brighter side is not found, whether overtly by the dialogue, or through the ridiculousness of some of the character traits and movements. The physical comedy of the actors plays a vital role in creating humor during otherwise sad moments. Where dialogue would not allow, the characters, especially Lenny (Maggie Chestovich), Babe (Ashley Rose Montondo), and Barnette (David Darrow),use their entire bodies – from their facial expressions, to manual gesticulations, to outright “dancing” – to bring the audience to laughter even when we want to empathize and shed a tear with the sisters.Sarah Agnew also does an excellent job playing Chick Boyle, the antagonistic first cousin who represents the judgment and expectation of society. Though an antagonist, her appearance on stage is always welcomed with a mirthful anticipation. Hating and loving a story’s antagonist is one of the rare joys of theater and literature, and Chick Boyle is a perfect example.

The interplay between the tragic and comedic is so fluent that we are instantly shocked and engrossed and are kept on the edge of our seats for the duration of the play. And in one of the most real moments I have ever seen in a play, the sisters actually break out into uncontrollable fits of laughter as they share news of their grand-daddy’s second stroke. The tension and grief of a moment so many of us know, having lost someone dear to us, explodes in laughter. When all the suffering in your life comes to such a climax that you can no longer control yourself, and you giggle and cry at the same time, is a moment that Ms. Henley (and the actors) captured exquisitely.

The entire drama is played out in the kitchen of a country home. The set’s only alteration during the course of the play is the changing colors of the sky, and appearance of a moon. What seems like a simple set is in fact quite dynamic, with a truly functioning kitchen, and a refrigerator and vase which are almost good enough to be secondary characters. Every delicate touch to detail, from the era appropriate appliances to the receding telephone poles in the background, helped transport the audience into the Place.

From beginning to end, story to set, and character development to conflict resolution, this is one of the best plays I have seen in a very long time.

Crimes of the Heart will run until June 15th, at the Guthrie Theater.  Click here for ticket info and more. Do not miss your chance to see this brilliant, hilarious, and memorable play.