Crimes of the Heart: Calculating craziness reigns at Everyman Theatre

Beth Hylton, Dorea Schmidt and Megan Anderson reminisce in Crimes of the Heart  (Stan Barouh)

There’s an old joke that if you play a country music song backwards, you get your house, dog, pick-up truck, best friend and your ex-wives back.  There is nothing in the joke however about saving a horse that was struck by lightning; or about sparing a husband who was shot by his wife – simply because she thought he “looked funny.”

Scenarios such as these may make Southern belles blush, but Baltimore audiences will laugh out loud at the lunacy in Beth Henley’s kitchen sink saga, Crimes of the Heart – the current production at Everyman Theatre.

Directed by Susanna Gellert, Crimes of the Heart won both the 1981 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and the 1981 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play.  Henley also wrote the 1986 screenplay for the Academy Award-nominated screen adaptation which starred Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard.

Dorea Schmidt as Babe and Jamie Smithson as Barnette. (Stan Barouh)
Dorea Schmidt as Babe and Jamie Smithson as  Barnette.  (Stan Barouh)

Set in the real-life small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, Crimes of the Heart follows a reunion of the fictitious Magrath sisters.  Each sister has unresolved issues, but one problem in particular is about to set the town on fire.

The oldest sister Lenny, looking every bit the shriveled spinster at the tender age of 30, is sure everyone has forgotten her birthday.  Meg, the wild middle-child has just blown back into town after years on the road fitfully fomenting a floundering singing career.  And Babe, whose airy innocence tethers a tortured soul, has shot her husband because, well, his funny looks are just the tip of the tempestuous iced lemonade-berg.

The troubled trio is joined by their self-absorbed cousin Chick; Meg’s Yankee loving ex-beau Doc; and a revenge seeking lawyer named Barnette.  As the play unfolds we learn that all of these characters have a stake in the Magrath’s unfolding scandal.

At first glance, one might think the storyline is just too far fetched to make either the characters or the action fly over the course of a 2½ hour play.  But director Gellert pairs a steady hand with a near perfect ensemble to put the ludicrous plot over with whimsical warmth and charm.  You know that a production has totally drawn you in when you find yourself caring for (or alternately hating) characters who never actually appear on stage.

The natural affinity between the three leads cannot be overstated.  The histrionics are hysterical, and when they settle down to reminisce about their shared childhood experiences, you’re convinced these three sisters are all on the same cycle.

Everyman feature favorite Beth Hylton appears as the oldest sister – the lonely Lenny Magrath.  Hylton perfectly portrays Lenny as dowdy, disaffected and desperate, but she also conveys the quiet dignity which makes Lenny the rock everyone else leans upon.

Megan Anderson appears as the high-spirited Meg. (Stan Barouh)
Megan Anderson makes waves as the high-spirited Meg.  (Stan Barouh)

Opportunistic Meg Magrath is energetically portrayed by the always entertaining Megan Anderson.  Anderson enters on an animated high, then gently reels her character back so that we see the fragile heart of a scared young woman beneath the hard dark shell.

Dorea Schmidt is delightful as the homicidal younger sister Babe Botrelle, maintaining the persona of an ingenue even as she considers the tensile strength of a piece of rope.

The supporting players do a great job of adding creamy layers to the pecan cluster of the Magrath clan.

Supercilious first cousin Chick Boyle is portrayed by Katy Carkuff with annoying aplomb.  Danny Gavigan plays it mostly cool and collected as Meg’s spurned lover, Doc Porter.

Balancing the character of Barnette Lloyd between calculating counselor and quasi stalker, Jamie Smithson carefully holds the high ground in a role that could easily sink into smarminess.

On the production side, the sky-blue set by Debra Booth incorporates the best the 1960’s had to offer.  More than one woman in the audience was heard to say, “I want that kitchen.”

Jay A. Herzog’s lighting design provides a nice ambience for the roomy kitchen, while his slow fades gently move the viewer through several memory sequences.  And Stowe Nelson’s sound design sets the mood without overwhelming either the audience or the action on the stage.

Dorea Schmidt test the oven. (Stan Barouh)
Dorea Schmidt tests the oven.  (Stan Barouh)

The southern accents are elusive at times, but thankfully dialect coach Ashley Smith doesn’t drown us in drawl.  LeVonne Lindsay’s costumes (particularly Meg’s jump suit) are a fetching blast from the past.  Did lawyers in the 1970’s really dress like Barnette Lloyd?  Unfortunately, they did.

There were a few glitches in the direction which could stand to be addressed. One was a scene where popcorn was started on the stove but never did pop.  There was also coffee that never percolated.  And there are 1-2 scenes where the director has set the actors on opposite sides of the spacious stage.  The dialogue was fine, but I felt as if I were watching a movie that was filmed in Cinemascope.  I understand that we are to sense a certain distance between the siblings, but perhaps that could be tweaked so that the folks sitting in the first 10-12 rows are not subjected to the neck-wrenching rigors of watching a tennis match.

Crimes of the Heart is a screwy yet sentimental stop in a small Southern town.  Highly recommended.


Everyman Theatre’s production of Crimes of the Heart has been extended by a week and runs now – Feb. 9.  Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with 2 intermissions.  The theater is located at 315 W. Fayette St, in downtown Baltimore.  Tickets and other information may found by contacting the box office at 410-752 -2208 or online.