Southern Quirky is a hard act to get right. There’s a tendency to overdo the Southern and overplay the Quirky that can turn characters into caricatures.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to report that South Coast Repertory’s revival of Beth Henley’s Very Southern and Very Quirky Crimes Of The Heart is such an all-around terrific production. Under Warner Shook’s insightful (and delightful) direction, the Magrath sisters and the folks around them are superbly played, about as real as can be, and all the funnier for being authentic human beings we can recognize and care about.

Blair Sams is Lenny Magrath, whose thirtieth birthday is hardly a cause for celebration. Not only does she not feel young anymore, she’s wondering how she’s “gonna continue holding my head up high in this community.” It turns out, you see, that Lenny’s youngest sister Babe (Kate Rylie) has been arrested for shooting her politician husband Zachery because, she later explains, “I didn’t like his looks! I just didn’t like his stinking looks!” To make matters worse for Lenny, her childhood horse Billy Boy was struck by lightning last night and killed on the spot. Completing this perfect storm of family disasters, the Magrath sisters’ “Ol’ Grandaddy” has been hospitalized after suffering a stroke. Oh, and no one but gossipy cousin Chick (Tessa Auberjonois) has remembered Lenny’s birthday.

Before long, middle sister Meg (Jennifer Lyon) has arrived on Lenny’s doorstop, back from California because a) her sisters need her and b) the singing career she left for the West Coast to pursue hasn’t been going well at all. No, not at all.

Completing the cast of characters are a trio of men. There’s Meg’s former boyfriend Doc (Nathan Baesel), who abandoned his medical studies following a leg injury suffered five years previous during 1969’s Hurricane Camille. Though married with children, Doc clearly carries a torch for his ex. Barnette Lloyd (Kasey Mahaffy) is the handsome young lawyer who’s taken on Babe’s defense as a way to exact revenge on Zachery, the man who ruined his father’s life. Completing the trio is the never seen Charlie Hill of Memphis, whose relationship with Lenny fizzled out when she ran out on him, fearing rejection if she revealed her deepest, darkest secret—her “underdeveloped” ovary.

Sams is so heartbreakingly real as 30-year-old spinster virgin Lenny that one quickly forgets that she hardly looks that age. From the moment Sams lights her one pathetic birthday candle atop a pitiful sugar cookie, it’s clear that this is going to be one heck of a great Crimes Of The Heart, if only the other actors stay on the same page as the unforgettable Sams.

And they do. The fabulous Lyon plays Meg a bit larger than life as well she should, the middle Magrath sister being the family’s big-haired blonde glamour girl, the one who traipsed off to Hollywood to be a star, but whose only stardom is in her own head (and in the lies she tells to “Ol’ Granddaddy.” (That Lyon is a native North Carolinian makes her performance all the richer.) Rylie’s Babe is a revelation, the gifted young actress giving the attempted husband-killer as much depth as ditz, her unexpectedly deep voice a great contrast to Babe’s outward flightiness.

Mahaffy’s SCR roles in You, Nero and Taking Steps have already proven the young actor an expert farceur. Crimes Of The Heart shows him off in a subtler mode, and his earnest young red-headed lawyer is a quirky treat. Baesel makes Doc sexy even with a limp, his big scene opposite Lyon a touching break from the show’s mostly comedic tone.

Finally, there’s Auberjonois quite possibly setting a laugh record for Chick, making the “pantyhose scene” her very own with a legs-spread leap that must be seen, and an all too casual way of littering Lenny’s floor with whatever she has at hand.

Tom Buderwitz’s exquisitely detailed set gives us a Southern home with a welcoming, lived-in feel. Peter Maradudin’s lighting design makes Buderwitz’s set look all the better, and includes some lovely end-of-act fadeouts. Angela Balough Calin’s costumes fit each character’s idiosyncrasies to a T, all the while capturing the look of the ‘70s. Jim Ragland contributes an effective sound design and some just-right original Southern tunes to set the mood. Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Jamie A. Tucker stage manager.

Crimes Of The Heart won playwright Henley the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Theatre World Award, and the biggest of all, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This splendid, multi-layered South Coast Rep revival makes it amply clear just why she deserved every one of these honors.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 18, 2010
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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