BY DAVID KENNERLEY | I suspect that one reason "Crimes of the Heart," Beth Henley's pungent play about estranged sisters surviving the hard-knock life, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 was due to its deft blending of comic and tragic.
A few years later, the Hollywood version, starring Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, and Diane Keaton, took a different tack, amping up the wackiness so it became a parody of itself.
So when Kathleen Turner took the helm of the Roundabout Theatre's current revival (her first foray into directing), she was faced with a delicate challenge. Would she stay true to Henley's tragicomic touch, go more for laughs, or, as I was hoping, mine the play's darker depths?
Set in the Magrath family home in small-town Mississippi in 1974, a few years after Hurricane Camille ravaged the region, the Chekovian melodrama features three sisters with a backstory that in ordinary circumstances would be mighty depressing indeed.
Not long after Daddy walked out on them, their mother hung herself in the cellar and the sisters scattered. The youngest, Babe (Lily Rabe), married an abusive brute she can't stand. The slutty, blond beauty Meg (Sarah Paulson) moved to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career and failed spectacularly. And the eldest, Lenny (Jennifer Dundas), stayed home to tend to her ailing grump of a granddaddy, putting her own life on hold.
As the play opens, things go from bad to worse. The family is thrown into a tizzy because Babe just shot her husband in the stomach and now faces attempted manslaughter charges. The sisters reunite to rehash old grievances and invent new ones.
Yet this is a comedy, mind you, so the women keep their wits about them, trading jokes and jabs. Their snooty, wisecracking cousin, Chick Boyle (Jessica Stone), is on hand to keep the yuks a-coming, while uniting the sisters in their shared loathing. This is the sort of play where the onset of Granddaddy's coma is a knee-slapper - for the sisters, if not the audience.
The men, each portrayed with a needy boyish streak, serve as little more than foils for the gals' antics. Barnette (Chandler Williams) is the wet-behind-the-ears attorney bent on keeping Babe out of the slammer. Doc Porter (Patch Darragh), who is maimed for life due to Meg's callousness during the nasty hurricane, still carries a torch for her.
The plot plays second fiddle to the characters, thanks to fierce performances and snappy dialogue that feels authentic, even if the Southern accents are laid on a bit thick from time to time. The overarching message - that it's never too late to heal a fractured family - is a touching one. The play effectively explores the restorative power of open communication and the inescapable bond of a shared past.
Perhaps Meg says it best: "It's an important human need to talk about our lives." Home is where the heart is, even if that heart has a few holes in it.
Turner does an admirable job of reigning in the mayhem and all the roles are well-acted. My favorite was Dundas, whose Lenny, with her mousy brown hair and slovenly outfits, perfectly evokes the frustration of a life misspent. Her transformation over the course of the evening, finally shucking off the mantle of victim, is astounding.
Anna Louizos' meticulous set of a humble home, with its rambling eat-in kitchen heaving with bric-a-brac, is a marvel. We even see the windows of the second story, the gabled roof, and glimpses of overhanging trees.
The synthetic '70s costumes, by David Murin, suit the characters perfectly, as do the hairstyles by Paul Huntley, who gets a separate credit for wig design.
With its realistic homey set, female familial strife, and a plot point concerning suicide, "Crimes of the Heart" begs comparison to Marsha Norman's harrowing "Night Mother," which premiered on Broadway in March 1983, just six weeks after "Crimes of the Heart" closed. Despite the similarities, this production steers clear of any severe emotion, ignoring the disturbing possibilities.
So, is it hard for the boisterous Kathleen Turner, last seen on Broadway as Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," to stay behind the scenes? Apparently so. If you listen closely, you'll notice the actor-director's stern yet sultry voice making the "silence your cell phones and wrapped candies" announcements.