Monday, October 27, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Crimes of the Heart"

Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

"...this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on."
                           -- Julia Sugarbaker: "Designing Women"

Score another hit for The Cloverdale Playhouse. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart got its start at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1979 and has been on the boards ever since --  with good reason: this perceptive comedy-drama is set in Hazelhurst, MS five years after Hurricane Camille, and recounts the domestic saga of the three MaGrath sisters, members of a Southern family who don't hide their eccentricities and foibles -- they "bring 'em down to the [kitchen in this case] and show 'em off".

Director Maureen Costello has assembled a tight-knit ensemble of Playhouse veterans and newcomers whose complex characterizations, bizarre behavior, and utter commitment to the truthfulness of these somewhat disturbed souls shape Ms. Henley's script in ever surprising revelations that keep audiences alternately laughing and crying for a full two-and-a-half hours.

The play is set in the kitchen of Old Granddaddy's house where spinster eldest sister Lenny [Deborah Robertson] has been living as his caretaker; middle sister Meg [Jaymee Vowell] answers Lenny's summons to return from her failed Hollywood singing career in order to lend support to youngest sister Babe [Sarah Adkins] who has just shot her big-wig lawyer husband Zachery because she "didn't like his looks".

Their cousin Chick [Rhonda Crim] antagonizes them with her haughty condescension while the sisters hire Barnette Lloyd [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], a young and seemingly meek attorney who just happens to have a "personal vendetta" against Babe's husband. -- Meg's former boyfriend Doc [Bill-e Cobb] brings word that Lenny's horse has been struck by lightning on this, her 30th Birthday which only Chick remembered by bringing her a box of almost year-old chocolates.

Hanging over the action is the specter of their Mother's bizarre suicide, their Father's desertion of the family, Old Granddaddy's physical ailments and domineering ways, Zachery's history of abusing Babe, Lenny's inability to have children due to her "shrunken ovaries", an incident during Hurricane Camille that almost crippled Doc, and Babe's "secret" that could prejudice a jury against her.

Yes, that's a lot to "bring down and show off", but Ms. Costello's ensemble inhabit their characters with complete truthfulness, that no matter how fantastic their behavior or attitudes, they are completely credible. We recognize them (and might just have relatives like them). -- To a person, these actors handle even the most far-fetched incidents as commonplace with such grace and charm that their surface quirks have us liking them even with their faults, and in true Southern fashion, "we're proud of our crazy people" on the Cloverdale stage.

Mr. Dasinger's Barnette at first appears to be naively innocent and unsure of his surroundings, especially in the boisterous MaGrath household, but he quickly falls under the spell of the sisters, Babe in particular, and there is a hint of possible romance that Ms. Adkins can switch on with a shrug or a pout, all the while admitting her guilt and accepting Barnette's suggestions and interpretations of the law.

Mr. Cobb's physical and vocal comfort in the role of Doc is admirable, and a far cry from his star-turn as the flamboyant Emcee in 2012's Cabaret. Totally natural as the humble happily-married Doc who seems to genuinely like the MaGraths, and wants no more than an evening spent with Meg without recriminations for her deserting him during the hurricane five years ago. A rock-solid performance.

In a powerhouse portrayal as Chick, Ms. Crim claims attention every time she hits the stage. Here is a woman one can "love to hate" -- a superficially charming young matron whose studied manners and social position are given a sharp edge with virtually every line of dialogue that she spews with criticism and holier-than-thou assurance. Yet, she is the one realist in the group; she may be right most of the time, though her attitude works against her. -- Postures, facial expressions, and comic timing are delivered with no inhibitions; excellent.

Each of the three MaGrath sisters has issues, ones they avoid by resorting to mundane daily tasks that provide a sense of security. -- Ms. Robertson imbues the introverted Lenny with flustered and fastidious gestures; she won't risk loving a man because she doesn't want any man to know she can't have children; so she throws herself into helping others as the seeming rock of the family. -- Ms. Vowell's depiction of the headstrong worldly Meg who pretends that her career is in good shape rather than admit failure, nonetheless goes with Doc for a "ride in his truck to look at the moon" as an attempt to relive a romanticized past. -- And Ms. Adkins plays the self-contradictory (perhaps schizophrenic) Babe with elements of innocence and sophistication, seduction and childlike wonder; and she can turn on a dime with complete conviction.

Together, their denial can make light of Babe's criminal act and switch attention to Lenny's forgotten Birthday, making lemonade, or other diversions...anything but admit the reality of their situation by believing "it'll work out". Family trumps the rest of the world, and these Southern women rely on that more than anything.

Playwright Henley and the Playhouse actors handle serious big issues so candidly that we are very comfortable in their company, and we don't mind at all that their craziness is in full view for us to enjoy.