Well, that was a little exhausting. The Guthrie Theater’s production of “Crimes of the Heart” starts at a fever pitch and ratchets up to a frenzy of southern-fried panic before settling into a sentimental denouement. If you like that sort of thing, wolf down your grits and taters and head on over. It’ll tickle your innards.
Beth Henley’s 1981 comedy brings us three Mississippi sisters caught up in the ill humors of a “very bad day,” as one puts it. The aptly named Babe (Ashley Rose Montondo) has shot her husband. Statuesque Meg (Georgia Cohen) has sashayed home from California to commiserate. Mousy Lenny (Maggie Chestovich) jockeys the Babe situation and the worsening news about old granddaddy’s health. He’s on his deathbed at the Hazlehurst community hospital.
Henley invites us to laugh at these sisters (and their priggish cousin Chick), and to gain some sense of a way of life that’s foreign to these Minnesota bones.
Yet, the play has a serious aspiration, an almost-absurdist southern Gothic gravity. The long-ago suicide of the sisters’ mother hangs in the air of the comfortably disheveled Magrath manse (beautifully articulated by designer James Youmans) and we are asked to sympathize with three humans trying to move past their fears. Despite its oddities, the play requires a reality we can accept.
Director Marcela Lorca never gets us to that point. Her production favors the comedy (to put it mildly) of Henley’s story without ever letting these characters breathe with real heart and frailty. They swirl across the stage in a constant criss-cross that crimps the need for storytelling.
Montondo’s Rose is naturally buoyant, and that’s fine. However, she seems beyond bubble-headed when she recounts how she took a shot at her old man. Is there a moment of introspection, perhaps, as she re-enters the tunnel of emotional trauma she’s experienced in the past 48 hours? It’s not about remorse, it’s about an understanding that her life is in wreckage.
Chestovich portrays Lenny with such brittle Yankee anxiety that we fear she’ll suffer a nervous breakdown any second. How does she make it through the day without exploding? Cohen is more emotionally relaxed as Meg. Sarah Agnew gets the right physical tics as the angular nag Chick. David Darrow, as a lawyer who wants to help Babe, is a beanpole cut from the Barney Fife mold. Strange as he is, he fits right in.
Clint Ramos’s costumes perfectly express each of these types. Lenny looks an uptight school marm, Meg is an Amazon in tight jeans and boots and Babe looks utterly bereft in her pink nightgown.
Henley wrote “Crimes of the Heart” on the edge of caricature. That’s the challenge for a production intent on thrilling us with the characters’ eccentricities and at the same time coaxing us into a humanity that draws a tear or a lump in the throat. Lorca’s staging shows us the former — complete with funny mugs and laughs — at an arm’s length. We are never quite invited into the real and humid universe of the Magrath family, never asked to take them seriously. And that can be tiring.