CRIMES OF THE HEART (Curio): Deliciously dark Southern fare

Beth Henley's CRIMES OF THE HEART Curio Theatre

Tessa Kuhn, Colleen Hughes and Rachel Gluck as the Magrath sisters in Beth Henley’s CRIMES OF THE HEART. Photo by Rebecca Gudelunas.

Focused on a flawed Southern family, Beth Henley’s CRIMES OF THE HEART won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981 and was adopted into an Oscar-nominated 1986 film starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. That makes it sound like it’d be dated, safe, and  horrible, right?

Wrong. The play—and its well-paced, well-realized current production from Curio Theatre Company—bubbles with life and humor. Grounded by its darkly comic, in-tune dialog, Henley’s script remains relevant because its central characters—the three Magrath sisters— feel so vibrantly human.

They’re three very different people. Alone on her 30th birthday, elder sister Lenny has “been on a crying jag,” chaste and miserable after dedicating her life to caring for Old Grandaddy. In a complex, humorous performance, Rachel Gluck reveals a rounded character, at turns miserable and enthusiastic, hopeful and despondent.

Younger sister Babe has shaken up her family and their small town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, by shooting her abusive husband in the stomach. Tessa Kuhn excels in the central role, mixing impulsive naivete with telling sensitivity and strength. We understand why her green young lawyer (Chase Byrd) feels so enamored.

Babe’s criminal act has brought prodigal middle sister Meg (Colleen Hughes) back to town, where she’s eager to revisit her own crime of the heart. Ex-flame Doc (delicious dry Harry Slack) remains game, despite his marriage to a Northerner and his “half-Yankee” children. Gossipy cousin Chick disapproves (Lesley Berkowitz energetically captures her pesky zealotry).

CRIMES OF THE HEART treats serious topics—infidelity, race, murder, suicide—with a touching irreverence that never forgets their humanity. Gay Carducci’s direction succeeds in traversing the darker moments and the accompanying joyful absurdity.

Playing the piece in two act instead of its original three makes for a lengthy, drawn-out second act, but it’s one which rarely lags. It hardly needs to be said that Paul Kuhn’s kitchen set creates a perfectly real backdrop for the Southern gothic. It’s my favorite production of this Philadelphia theater season.

[Curio Theatre Company at the Calvary Center, 4740 Baltimore Avenue] November 15-December 9, 2017; curiotheatre.org

 

 

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.