‘Crimes of the Heart’ walks tightrope between comedy, tragedy

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Three sisters — left to right, Lenny (Jensen Power), Babe (Margaret Grace Hee) and Meg (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) — amp up their affection in “Crimes of the Heart.” Photo by Robin Jackson.

My childhood, in a functional family during the late ‘30s in a New York suburb, left me ill-prepared to see “Crimes of the Heart.”

Because the play’s about a loving but dysfunctional trio of sisters in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a city of 4,000 folks just south of Jackson, in 1974.

Besides, I was an only child — a male one, at that.

Yes, life within a small Southern Sisterhood can be messy, ‘specially when you have to cope with the scars of a major trauma thrust upon you way before adulthood.

In the comic-drama now being performed by the Ross Valley Players, two quirky Magrath sisters emotionally support a third, Babe, who’s been jailed for shooting her bully husband in the stomach because, she insists, she didn’t like his looks.

Babe’s childlike demeanor is portrayed with excruciating but rib-tickling authenticity by Margaret Grace Hee in what I deem one of the best Bay Area performances of the season.

Lenny, a spinster who’s resentfully taken care of their offstage comatose granddaddy (she’s played with exquisite drabness by Jensen Power), has given up on marrying.

Meg (a perfectly extroverted Chandler Parrott-Thomas), who’s earned a rep for being self-aggrandizing; addicted to cigarettes, booze and food; and sexually promiscuous, has given up — after a meltdown requiring institutionalization — on trying to make it as a professional singer in Hollywood.

Babe hasn’t given up anything but her freedom.

Momentarily.

Though slightly long in the tooth, “Crimes” deals with issues that resound with topicality: racism, domestic violence, mental illness.

Plus a tad of insight about death.

Including suicide (their mom had offed herself — and her cat  — years before).

Not the stuff comedies are usually rife with. Except dark ones.

And this is that, to be sure.

My favorite slapstick scene is one in which a secondary character struggles to put on her pantyhose; top choice for poignancy is Lenny singing “Happy Birthday” to herself.

Indeed, “Crimes,” written by Beth Henley, a Jackson native who, with borrowed inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” walks a tightrope between comedy and tragedy.

The Pulitzer judges in 1981 obviously thought Henley didn’t fall off that self-imposed high-wire; they awarded her the prize for drama.

I suspect, by the way, that many other productions of “Crimes,” have leaned more heavily on the heart-rending aspects of the script than the hilarity that consistently lightens this one.

The 1986 film, which starred Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek, ended up somewhere in the middle.

Here, set design by Ron Krempetz (the interior of a home with photo after photo and crammed pantry shelves) and costumes by Michel A. Berg (from a bare-midriffed outfit of Meg to a bland, bow-in-back dress of Lenny) are of particular aid to the production — as is Patrick Nims’ direction of the six-member cast, which results in all accents remaining intact throughout and the two-hour-plus show moving so swiftly I never checked my watch.

On the other hand, though the two-act play may have been groundbreaking back when — at a time interracial relationships were still shocking — a bit of what’s highlighted now as a plot device feels as if we’ve seen it too many times before.

Frankly, my expectations were low when I entered the Barn, the RVP’s home in Ross.

I was depressed about Trump’s handling of the Iran crisis and his repeatedly racist commentaries about four congresswomen of color; I was dog-tired because I’d been dealing since February with home rehab thanks to Pineapple Express damage back in February; and I knew I’d have more than a little difficulty relating to a play about three sisters.

But I was pleasantly surprised (and re-energized) the Friday night I watched “Crimes” along with a sold-out house.

And delighted.

Except for the occasional screeching of the characters over one another (as written).

I also found it exceptionally courageous for a community theater to tackle such a complex serio-comedy.

Triumphantly at that.

“Crimes of the Heart” will run at The Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross, through Aug. 11. Night performances, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $12-$27. Information: www.rossvalleyplayers.comor (415) 456-9555.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →