A woman sits at a kitchen table and blows out a single, lonely candle wedged awkwardly into a cookie as she sings “Happy Birthday” to herself through tears. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and the kind of small character moment that BareStage Production’s iteration of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern Gothic play “Crimes of the Heart” does particularly well.
The birthday girl is Lenny Magrath (a very affecting Natasha Munasinghe), who has just turned 30 years old to little fanfare. She is the oldest of the three Magrath sisters at the core of “Heart,” a responsible but increasingly bitter spinster whose insecurities and resentments bubble over when her younger siblings return home to deal with the fallout of the pivotal “crime.”
Youngest sister Babe Botrelle (Jade Loredana Moujaes) has just shot her senator husband in the stomach — she was aiming somewhere more lethal — because she “didn’t like his looks.” The shooting has drawn wild middle child Meg (Claire Pearson) back to Hazlehurst, Mississippi, from her not-so-glamorous life as a failed singer in Hollywood. Her return is of great annoyance to the Magrath sisters’ nosy, status-conscious cousin Chick Boyle (Julia Reilly), who pops into the Magrath’s deceptively bright kitchen every once in awhile to say something wildly insensitive about how their scandal is affecting her social club fortunes. Chick is a caricature of Southern snootiness, but a satisfying person to root against.
The Southern setting helps flesh out the quirks of “Crimes of the Heart.” As a work of Southern Gothic tragicomedy, “Heart” makes more sense than if understood literally. Scenes like Babe pouring herself four glasses of lemonade with lots of sugar after shooting her husband, or Lenny’s old horse getting struck by lightning are odd, but in a genre-appropriate way. Unfortunately, the Southern locale also lends itself to inconsistent accents, which occasionally distract from Henley’s dialogue-heavy work.
The tone vacillates wildly from comedy to tragedy. The sisters shift in a split second from mourning their granddaddy’s coma to laughing hysterically about it, from hating each other fiercely to protecting one another at all costs. But in the quirky world Henley has constructed, amplified by Sam Blum’s wonderfully artificial lime green and canary yellow sitcom set, it’s perfectly natural. In truth, anybody with a sibling will recognize the instant shift from squabbling to hugging as recognizably genuine.
This balance of humor and horror doesn’t work as well when paired with the more disturbing elements of the play. A failed suicide attempt is brushed off with a sigh of relief. Babe’s relationship with a 15-year-old Black boy, Willie Jay, raises eyebrows from other characters for its interracial union, though the story doesn’t really go anywhere with that aspect, and the fact that their affair constitutes statutory rape is only hinted at and never condemned. Her possible abuse at the hands of her husband is also glossed over, hinted at but not grappled with.
These are structural problems and BareStage’s cast does a mostly good job with the material. Munasinghe is excellent — sympathetic but frustratingly self-pitying. As Meg, Claire Pearson has the tough job of playing a big, nearly cartoonish personality, but balances Meg’s over the top drama with quiet, well-acted moments. Pearson casually slumped in a chair, taking a single bite of each of Lenny’s birthday chocolates is a concise portrait of self-destruction and casual cruelty. Moujaes struggles the most as Babe, a character who is initially hard to differentiate in personality from Meg, but effectively captures Babe’s frailty and dreamy hysteria in the last scenes of the play. All three of the leads are convincing as siblings, capable of fighting ferociously with one another precisely because of the foundation of love and shared trauma which binds them.
Cameron La Brie’s direction is lovingly straightforward to a fault, capturing the good but also the outdated about Henley’s play. “Heart” is uneven but the relationship between the three sisters is recognizable and touching, especially the tension between Lenny and Meg. The Magrath siblings may have their grievances with one another, but they will protect each other ferociously. Only a Magrath messes with a Magrath.
“Crimes of the Heart” will run from March 10 to 12 in Choral Rehearsal Hall.