VERSAILLES — At last, a Southern play that is neither a deep-fried histrionic farce nor a cliché- and bouffant-riddled fluff piece, but one that is actually full of grit and texture and competing meanings. Mercifully, it is not even set in Texas.
The Woodford Theatre's latest production, Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1978 play Crimes of the Heart, delves deep into the turmoil-riddled heart of one Mississippi family's collective psyche as three twentysomething-ish sisters in the 1970s attempt to reconcile the dark, unsatisfied parts of themselves with the light.
The result is by far the most satisfying show of Central Kentucky's 2010-11 theater season.
Director Beth Kirchner could have taken Crimes myriad different ways, from a noir Southern goth-fest to airy comical romp, but she chose a middle path, one that takes the audience on a teeter-totter ride of emotion. Just when it seems like a morose destiny is bound to prevail — bam! Some comedic reprieve pulls you back to laughter, and to a hope that, despite the MaGrath sisters' legitimate psychological hauntings, they just might be OK.
Kirchner's balancing act takes more than prodigious skill. It requires a cast of actors who can deepen her vision even further with performances that do not just suffice, but illuminate and disturb in their own right.
With the return of professionally seasoned young actresses Ellie Clark, Dara Jade Tiller and Jan Hooker to the Bluegrass, I can no longer whine about the dearth of under-40 leading ladies in Central Kentucky.
Their ensemble performance as the MaGrath sisters is like a long drink of water when you didn't even know you were thirsty. Fleshing out more inner conflict where other actors would've stopped, wringing the nuances out of Henley's script, and most impressive, capitalizing on the play's challenging mid-emotion beat changes, the trio spin Kirchner's vision and Henley's words into an evocative tour de force.
Jenny Fitzpatrick's costuming frames the sisters' differing personalities before they even speak a word. The frumpy cardigan sported by eldest sister Lenny (played by Hooker) suggests she's consigned herself to old maidenhood at 30. The jazzy babydoll frock and knee-high boots of Los Angeles-dwelling middle sister Meg (Clark) suggests rebellion. And the cutesiness of youngest sister Babe's (Tiller) Minnie Mouse-esque polka-dot dress suggests too much of the baby remains in her, that she is living in a fantasy world, despite being the only sister who is married and at the play's start has just shot her abusive husband.
As Lenny, Hooker marshals the determined energy of the overly motivated caretaker, one who must channel so much positivity into her every move and phrase just to make up for her own sense of dissatisfaction. It is only when old conflicts with her sister Meg poke holes in this veneer that Lenny can be truly transformed, a process not lost on Hooker.
So it goes with the other sisters, each earning redemption by facing the worst parts of themselves, their own "crimes of the heart." These encounters frame some of the evening's most riveting moments.
Take, for instance, Meg's encounter with Doc Porter (Nick Vannoy), a former love — perhaps the love of her life — whom she left in the rubble of a hurricane with a broken leg and broken heart. The silent electricity between them and the implied pathos of forgiveness makes their all-night joy ride through the country all the more victorious, even with its overtones of will-she-or-won't-she-break-his-heart-again? coloring the scene. Besides, is there any Southern rite of release and reclamation more potent than drinking bourbon all night while looking at the moon?
Then there's Babe, who is both the darkest and the brightest sister. Her domestic abuse, her illicit love affair with a teenager and her attempt to murder her husband belie her overly bubbly voice and demeanor.
Tiller does a fascinating job portraying Babe's genuine, if overtaxed, good-heartedness versus the legacy of their suicidal mother's emotional alienation, a burden that has trickled down to Babe, though she cannot articulate this for herself. Of the three sisters, Babe needs the most help reaching her redemptive moment.
A supporting cast in Vannoy and Jason Meenach as Barnette Lloyd, Meg's love interest and Babe's lawyer, seethes palpable and significant sexual tension, but Sarah Levy's minor role as a MaGrath cousin and dramatic foil is the least successful. If she would dial down the B in the B-word just a little and let her character's boiling jealousy peep through more carefully, she would be a more realistic version of those Southern villainesses who can sting with just the right turn of phrase.
Tight timing and intricate blocking further round out the strengths of this show, one that raises the bar of what Southern plays can and ought to be: more grit, less fluff.