By John Lyle Belden
The Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama “Crimes of the Heart” by Beth Henley takes on a special resonance in these times of heightened awareness of mental health issues and violence against women.
The Belfry Theatre presents this play, directed by Jen Otterman, at the Theater at the Fort in Lawrence in all its dysfunctional glory. Taking place in a roughly 24-hour period in a small Mississippi town in 1974, we meet the Magrath sisters: Lenny (Brooke Hackman) is turning 30 but feels ancient; Meg (Sarah Eberhardt) apparently put her Hollywood singing career on hold to rush home; and Babe (Becca Bartley) is getting bailed out after shooting her abusive rich attorney and State Senator husband in the gut. Cousin Chick (Ka’Lena Cuevas) thinks she’s helping, but is mostly a judgmental pill.
Also on hand are family friend Doc Porter (Tanner Brunson), who isn’t actually a doctor (why will be revealed), and young lawyer Barnette Lloyd (Mickey Masterson) who takes up Babe’s case because he has a “personal vendetta” against her husband.
While I do recommend this play for its sharp script and excellent performances, I must acknowledge there should be a “Trigger Warning” as there is frank discussion of suicide and attempted acts of self-harm. In fact, if one were to observe this as an armchair psychologist, you could see a lot of disorders on display, especially the effects of narcissistic abuse by the sisters’ grandfather (offstage, but very much a character in this story).
And yet, this is also a comedy. The dark humor pops up in little bits here and there, such as Lenny’s “birthday cookie,” and bubbles over in gut-busting moments including one that involves a broom and another that is triggered by the phrase, “you’re too late.” For anyone who relates to tragic circumstances, it’s easy to see how “we shouldn’t laugh at this” only triggers another round of guffaws through cast and audience alike.
Hackman naturally portrays Lenny as a character you just want to put your arm around, maybe to gently shake some sense into. Eberhardt as Meg presents us with a fallen honky-tonk angel who surprises you with her depth of spirit, but who can’t help being that girl in need of rescue. As Babe, Bartley plays a woman who is 24 going on 15, her life decided for her in a way she never wanted, desperate for a way out. Brunson comes across as a strong good ole boy, but more than Doc’s injured leg hasn’t healed properly. Masterson presents Lloyd as the kind of perfect gentleman that makes one suspicious. Finally, as Chick, Cuevas is great as the kind of person who means well, but, well, bless her heart…
Complex and compelling, “Crimes of the Heart” runs through Sunday, May 7, at 8920 Otis Ave., Indianapolis. Info and tickets at thebelfrytheatre.com or artsforlawrence.org.