GUILTY PLEASURE Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner is like I Love Lucy wed to Fried Green
Tomatoes and Flannery O'Connor.
It must have seemed a guilty pleasure to dramatist Beth Henley to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Crimes of the Heart (at Gloucester Stage Company through September 16). But then, the play itself is something of a guilty pleasure — not much nutrition, Southern-fried to an airy crisp, and served up with generous sides of eccentricity and spiky sibling affection. Set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille ravaged the region, the comedy swirls around three sisters headed not for Moscow but, seemingly, for spinsterhood, slutdom, and the slammer. But what do you expect from grown-up orphans not the same since Mama hanged herself and the family cat, leaving her offspring to the mismanagement of Old Granddaddy, now a hospitalized heap of popped blood vessels and feeding tubes?
Despite the sibling trio at its center, there is no hint of Chekhovian languor to Crimes of the Heart. It's shot out of a gun when 24-year-old Babe Botrelle, née Magrath, plugs her politician husband in the stomach, ostensibly because she "didn't like his looks." This bit of mayhem pushes sensible big sis Lenny into a hand-wringing frenzy that has her summoning home troublemaking blues singer and femme fatale Meg, who bolted for LA after hometown beau "Doc" Porter, whom she had lured into riding out Camille with her, was injured by a falling tree. Now he walks with a limp and carries a torch. Moreover, Doc is not the only one in town to have lost a round to Mother Nature: as the play opens, on Lenny's 30th birthday, she learns that her beloved horse, Billy Boy, has been struck by lighting.
Given all the mishegas and misfortune afoot, it's surprising how sunny Crimes of the Heart manages to be. On the menu in the Magrath kitchen are pecans, lemonade, oatmeal, and bourbon, and against all odds they make a tasty meal, especially when it's as well-served as it is at GSC in a production helmed by Carmel O'Reilly. The fast-paced, wide-eyed staging taps into the manic innocence at the heart of a comedy where crimes, whether of the heart or against the law, are more like misdemeanors. Even attempted murderess Babe seems aptly named. Moreover, Henley, also the author of The Miss Firecracker Contest, is herself a firecracker when it comes to sitcom one-liners. Her script (though propelled by way too many phone calls) is like I Love Lucy wed to Fried Green Tomatoes and Flannery O'Connor.
For GSC, Jenna McFarland Lord has designed a big, old-fashioned kitchen behind the screen door of which looms the branch of a moss-laden shade tree. You just want to take your lemonade right on out there. The 1970s accouterments too, from Meg's long fringe of a vest to Babe's pink hair rollers and baby-doll pajamas, are also right. And with the exception of prim, bewigged, social-climbing first cousin Chick Boyle, who seems to have stepped out of a cartoon version of The Help, the characters, however quirky, loose, loose-screwed, or lethal, register as likeable and real.