As humans it’s healthy to talk about our lives, especially the problems in our lives. And it often helps to do so when you’re having a bad day; especially if you’re in the Magrath family where bad days are really bad. Everyman Theatre starts the 2014 new year with a riveting revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley. Directed by Susanna Gellert, this engaging production will transform the way you relate to your family, especially on bad days, and is an inspiring reminder of how beauty can thrive even in life’s darker moments.
Often known for their incredibly striking sets, Everyman Theatre invokes the use of Scenic Designer Debra Booth’s masterful talents to create a realistic and lively Magrath household. Set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi in the early 70’s, Booth cultivates a quaint environment on the stage that allows the Magrath sisters to feel at home, even those that have been long removed from the situation. The faded country blue tones on the cabinets and matching shiny plastic table add a rustic charm to the scene’s atmosphere while the yellow-plaid wallpaper brightens up the space with a sense of gentle happiness. Booth furnishes the kitchen with all the dated necessities to authenticate the 1970’s setting laid out in a broad but intimate fashion that creates an exceptional and diverse area on which the story unfolds.
Costume Designer Levonne Lindsay takes an expressively symbolic approach to the costumes, having each initial costume for the characters represent their personalities. The brightly patterned dress is sophisticated for the town snoot, Chick, while Lenny it outfitted in a frumpy plaid skirt and dowdy brown cardigan reflecting her shy and depressive nature. Meg’s vivid blue and white striped jumpsuit gives her the ‘Hollywood’ success appeal with a hint of trashy layered into the cut of the garment while Babe’s bold pastel striped dress is a vibrant juxtaposition of her naïve but dangerous nature. Booth even makes Barnette’s blue suit and bold orange tie reflect his dual nature of a professional with determined enthusiasm.
It’s Lighting Designer Jay A. Herzog that makes some unique choices, creating moments of disruption in the play’s reality. When the Magrath sisters move to the front of the stage, gathered together to share fond memories there is a dimming effect that occurs. This also occurs when the characters move from one side of the set to the other; a major noticeable shift in lighting that almost hints to the illusion of dimmer switches in the lights. This feels out of place, and a bit contrived, shooting for effect rather than realism when the rest of the play’s aesthetic is grounded in the authenticity of occurring in real time (including the clock that keeps actual time on the wall.) Herzog’s use of this lighting gimmick cheapens authentic emotional moments that the characters often share, and it pulled me out of the play’s reality to remind them that they’re watching a show about family rather than experiencing it along side of them.
Director Susanna Gellert focuses on the play’s initial message of family bonds. Blood truly is thicker than water and there is no situation too tough for siblings if they just talk to one another. With a grounded cast of present actors who cultivate the reality of this drama in an exhilarating yet steady manner, Gellert’s production is a success. Gellert keeps the play moving by exploding the bickering moments of chaos between the Magrath sisters in upon themselves; having full rounds of dialogue occurring in a blur of a verbal fight— as one might expect such an event to occur in real life. Gellert manages to take this story and transform it so that it does not belong solely to one sister, and is not solely seen through one of their eyes. It is easy to fall into making this production Lenny’s story or Babe’s story, even Meg’s story, but Gellert’s vision realizes the play for what it is: the Magrath family story.
Working closely with Gellert is Dialect Consultant Ashley Smith. The authenticity of the play is further extended by Smith’s work, letting those that have stayed in Hazlehurt their lives have a more prominent southern drawl while Meg’s accent is much more subtle and softer from her time spent out in Hollywood.
Appearing just briefly in the performance is Doc Porter (Danny Gavigan). Both times he appears on the scene Gavigan accentuates the character’s pronounced limp as a focal point. This is a subtly perceptive move as the character’s back story, and thusly his place in the story’s plot, revolves around the incident that gave it to him. Gavigan deploys a series of covert flirtations with Meg Magrath, a slight deviation from the generic friendly approach given to the other women in the show.
Chick Boyle (Katy Carkuff) is the haughty female sitting at the top of the social ladder in Hazlehurst. Related to the Magrath’s (though wishing that she wasn’t) Chick is an antagonizing side-device that gives the Magrath women something to fuss about as the play continues. Carkuff at first feels a bit put on in her performance, as if she’s trying too hard to act uppity. But she settles into the character in the second and third act, finding the nuances of being better than the characters around her. Her condescending speech patterns are the pinnacle success of her performance, particularly in the third act when she attacks Lenny and Babe simultaneously.
Babe (Dorea Schmidt) is one of the most interesting characters in the production. Schmidt finds the balance between her fragile inner flower and her bold as brass bombastic nature; flipping through them with ease. When Schmidt plays Babe as the delicate and emotionally withered woman there is a raw tenderness to her performance; scenes shared with Meg (Megan Anderson) becoming particularly touching and heartwarming as the honest expressions between them flow quite naturally. But there is an excitable terror to Schmidt’s performance as well, experienced mostly when she begins to recite the story of the murder to Barnette (Jamie Smithson.)
Anderson, as the wayward twisted sister, has an equally dynamic performance in her character’s existence. Mouthy but wise and emotionally drawn to Babe, she carries her character with a confidence which creates an intriguing juxtaposition within Meg when her moments of self-doubt and the truth of her story is revealed. There is a stunning moment of Anderson’s performance that easily comes to mind when acclaiming her ability to find the soul of a character— in this production it is the unearthing of a tragically beautiful confession. Anderson is vivaciously present throughout the performance, but especially in this scene, verbally painting a delicate but tortured stain glass visual of her character’s breakdown.
The rock of the Magrath family, the anchor though she hardly appears capable of being so is Lenny (Beth Hylton.) It’s her moments of eruptive emotional distortion that really separate Hylton’s performance from the others. Playing the meager and mild-mannered lonely Lenny she manages to create a dynamic depth to this otherwise static character; forging rich emotional turmoil within the character and then allowing it to explode in moments of heated passion— be it fueled by sorrow, frustration, or confusion. Hylton does an exceptional job of keeping the character active while at the same time finding that inner balance of mildness that allows the audience to truly feel for her.
Crimes of the Heart is an excellent production of a classic that still speaks volumes to modern audiences when it comes to family drama and relations; a perfect piece of theatre for the middle of the winter as it will surely warm your heart.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
Crimes of the Heart plays through February 9, 2014 at Everyman Theatre— 315 West Fayette Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-2208 or purchase them online.