It’s probably a toss-up as to which group of Southern women are the more famous, the gals who get their hair done at Truvy’s in Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias or the Magrath sisters of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes Of The Heart. In either case, those with a fondness for Henley’s quirky Mississippi siblings will be happy to know that they are alive and well and performing nightly at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.

Kara Revel 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 (Tasha Ames) 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 (Tina Van Berckelaer) has remembered Lenny’s birthday.

Before long, middle sister Meg (Faline England) 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 (Jason Chanos), 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 (Ross Hellwig) 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.

Though Crimes Of The Heart could just as easily have been written as a drama, Henley’s play is most definitely a comedy, especially as performed with the broad strokes and thick-as-molasses drawls which James O’Neil has directed Revel, England, and Ames to use.  Though perhaps less might have been more effective, the talented actresses do create three very distinct sisters, and the family love which unites them is never in doubt. I particularly liked England’s take on Meg, the most psychologically complex of the siblings, though both Revel and Ames have standout moments as well.

Broad strokes are precisely what town gossip Chick needs, and Van Berckelaer delivers them in a deliciously catty performance.  Both men are excellent, with Hellwig getting the bigger, meatier role, which he plays with sympathy and subtlety, making you believe in Barnette and trust him, despite his youth and inexperience.  The chameleon-like Chanos does fine work too, unrecognizable as either the cowboy drifter in Bus Stop and young college prof in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.  A scene between Chanos as Doc and England as Meg, in which he proves a compassionate listener to Meg’s “L.A. confession,” is one of the production’s best.

Scenic designer Thomas S. Giamario’s Mississippi kitchen is a terrific one, framed by hanging shade tree branches.  Giamario’s lighting tells us immediately whether it’s late on a moonlit night or early on a bright October morning, and there’s a particularly great effect of headlights panning across the front screen door whenever a car arrives or departs, sound designers  Karyl Lynn Burns and Kenny Hobbs completing the effect. The pair’s country music selections complement each scene to perfection. Marcie Froehlich’s costumes have just the right 1970s look, and are precisely what these characters would have bought for themselves. T. Theresa Scarano’s props are well chosen and period-perfect as well.  Kathleen J. Parsons is production stage manager.

Crimes Of The Heart is precisely the kind of crowd-pleaser that audiences crave in these tough economic times. After all, Henley seems to be telling us, if these three sisters can emerge from their troubles intact—and optimistic to boot, then so too can we.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
May 1, 2010
                                                                                 Photos: Jeanne Tanner

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