Theater historian Brooks McNamara called “Crimes of the Heart” a “pitch-black comedy,” and the audience knows what he means from the get-go. The first scene of this Pulitzer Prize-winner, now in a good-looking and strongly performed production at Curtain Call, features sober-sided Lenny MaGrath (Jill Wanderman) attempting to celebrate — alone — her 30th birthday with a candle on a cookie. Before she can complete this slightly pathetic gesture, however, in barges her bossy cousin, Chick (Lydia Nightingale), who proceeds to change her stockings right in the kitchen, hiking up her skirt and dispensing bad news to the docile Lenny. When Chick hands Lenny a birthday gift, she tells her what it is before Lenny can open it.
Black comedy: the humorous treatment of serious subjects, and here they include Lenny’s shrunken ovary, a mother’s suicide, a daughter’s attempted suicide, an attempted murder and a dying grandfather. Ah, the human condition.
’Crimes of the Heart’
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 210 Old Loudon Road, Latham
WHEN: Through Oct. 6
HOW MUCH: $23
MORE INFO:877-7529 or www.curtaincalltheatre
We’re in Hazelhurst, Miss., in the fall of 1974, in the kitchen and dining area of the MaGrath sisters’ home. Lenny lives there with Granddaddy, but he’s frequently in and out of the hospital. In addition to celebrating her birthday alone, Lenny is worried about her younger sister, Babe (Dana Goodknight), who’s in jail for shooting her husband. She’s also uncertain if her other sister, Meg (Erin Waterhouse), a singer in California, will come back to help sort out matters.
Indeed, Meg returns, not the star everyone has hoped for but still self-dramatizing. The sisters, who share a history that alternately tickles and appalls them, are markedly different personalities, and their interactions are often fraught with friction. Complicating matters are Doc Porter (Chuck Conroy), Meg’s old flame; and Babe’s attorney, Barnette Lloyd (Jeff Lurie), whose interest in his client is more than professional.
Producer Carol Max has assembled a first-rate tech team, many CCT first-timers: note Christina Williams’s finely proportioned and richly detailed set; Emily Venezia’s apt props; Jay Spriggs’s realistic sound design, replete with whirring bird; Denise Massman’s costumes, notably Chick’s garish garb; Lily Fossner’s subtle lighting shifts; and Charlie Owens’s able stage management.
If there are blocking decisions by director Ron Komora with which I have quibbles — pacing by Meg and Barnette — I admire his use of the whole stage. He has also helped the sisters achieve an authentic family intimacy. An auspicious CCT directing debut.
Lurie successfully walks the line between blustering barrister and would-be swain. Doc’s scene with Meg in Act II is memorable for Conroy’s shy glances and tentative urgings. Nightingale’s Chick appropriately sucks the air out of the room, and when Chick got her comeuppance at Friday’s opening, the audience applauded.
Thanks to Wanderman’s work, Lenny’s arc of self-discovery is a pleasure to watch; her whole body and face blossom as events unfold. Meg is a survivor of many things (watch her reaction to the mention of their father, perhaps a dark secret), and Waterhouse expertly plays her as someone vital, who lives from moment to moment, sometimes the only help available, and sometimes the one needing help. And Babe, in Goodknight’s capable hands, is the impetuous baby, surprised by the hubbub, babbling on and on, too young to be a wife because she has never been fully mothered. A superb ensemble.
CCT begins its 13th season with a hit.