Stage & Dance

Sisters share tragedy, triumph in Pulitzer play

Three sisters leading separate and chaotic lives. Alone, they struggle to overcome the toxic residue of their troubled upbringing. Together, the three siblings find solace and strength.

It might not sound like a recipe for a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, but it is, and the Berea College Theatre Laboratory's production of Beth Henley's well-known play Crimes of the Heart deftly weaves humor and melancholy into the story of three sisters.

The Berea production premiered Friday in the e_SFlbMcGaw Theatre at the college's Jelkyl Drama Center.

Out of crisis, humor

Set in 1974, Crimes of the Heart addresses timely and universal themes, said Berea College theater professor Deborah G. Martin.

”All of us can bring to the table some sort of familial bond that we have experienced, whether it is with our natural families or with families that we have chosen,“ Martin said. ”Alone these characters are a mess. But together, they have the strength to meet their demons and overcome them.“

The action begins with the oldest sister, Lenny (played by Brandie Wagers), on her 30th birthday. Lenny labors under the weight of caring for the sisters' ailing grandfather, who has been taken to a local hospital.

The three are drawn together by a family crisis in their hometown of Hazelhurst, Miss., after the youngest sister, Babe (LaQualla Holland), shoots her loutish husband in the stomach, is jailed and then is released on bail.

Lenny summons the middle sister, Meg (Nina Yarbrough), to return to Mississippi from Los Angeles, where Meg is vainly pursuing her dream of becoming a singer.

A quirky cast

The original production of Crimes of the Heart debuted in 1979 at the Humana Festival for New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, featuring Kathy Bates as Lenny. It was made into a popular movie in 1986 starring Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton.

Henley's Magrath sisters are well tailored for dark comedy. In one of the more memorable scenes, Babe calmly describes to her attorney how she offered her husband a glass of lemonade as her spouse lay bleeding on the living-room floor. In another scene, one of Babe's clumsy suicide attempts fails. As she tries to gas herself, Babe bangs her head on the oven.

”These characters leap from the page,“ Martin said of the script. ”They are not wallflowers by any stretch of the imagination, and even as quirky as they are, they are all very real. We have some wonderful actresses in our program, and they are having a wonderful time portraying these characters.“

As the dark history of the sisters is fully revealed, the audience learns just how they became so emotionally maimed, having endured the suicide of their mother, who took her own life when the girls were very young.

They struggle through their collective heartaches and disappointments, but in the end, we leave the sisters in a touching final moment.

The play's characters are off-beat and at times wacky, Martin said, but they nonetheless ring very true.

”I was raised by strong, funny, quirky women; the bonds among the women in my family are unique, complex, almost mystical,“ Martin said. ”I identify with these characters — they are spunky, outspoken and very human.“