East West Players 2010-11 season continues with its second smash hit in a row—an absolutely splendid staging of the quirky Southern comedy Crimes Of The Heart. The third major Southern California revival of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play since May, East West’s is the first to feature an all-Asian American cast—and why not? As Artistic Director Tim Dang has stated, “Asians do live in the South, Asians do speak with Southern accents and Asians historically have been part of the American landscape for well over a century.” Since Hollywood casting directors remain for the most part blithely unaware of this reality, it’s up to theater companies like East West to give members of the Asian American acting community roles like Henley’s delightfully quirky Magrath sisters—parts which Elizabeth Liang, Kimiko Gelman, and Maya Erskine bring to vivid, authentic, hilarious, and emotionally resonant life.

Under Leslie Ishii’s spot-on direction, this stellar trio of leading ladies resist the all-too-easy temptation to overdo the Southern and overplay the Quirky that can turn quirky Southern characters into caricatures. Liang, Gelman, and Erskine make Lenny, Meg, and Babe about as real as real can be, and all the funnier for being authentic human beings whom we recognize and care about. That they look different from the original Broadway trio (Lizbeth MacKay, Mary Beth Hurt, and Mia Dillon) or their better known movie counterparts (Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek) matters not a whit, other than to make the East West production even more of a must-see.

Liang is Lenny, 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 (Erskine) 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 (Hiwa Bourne) has remembered Lenny’s birthday.

Before long, middle sister Meg (Gelman) 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 (Tim Chiou), 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 (Jason Sino) 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.

Just as she did with Avalyn in East West’s recent Mysterious Skin, Liang takes a character “type” and makes her entirely unclichéd. From Lenny’s bedraggled shuffle to her dorky sweetness and inextinguishable pluck, Liang makes you forget any Lenny you may have seen before, yet love her every bit as much. Gelman’s Meg is a good deal more low-key than the middle sister is sometimes played, and all the realer and more touching for it, particularly in a pivotal scene opposite Chiou’s Doc, one which benefits greatly from Gelman’s rich, grounded performance (and Chiou’s as well). Erskine, an exciting new presence on L.A.’s stage scene, resists the temptation to take Babe’s ditziness over the top, resulting in a performance of sweetness and depth. 6-footer Chiou gives Doc the sexiest limp I’ve ever seen as well as a heart and soul of gold. (Memo to Hollywood: Take note of Chiou’s TV/film star potential.) A fine Sino gives Barnette a down-to-earth sincerity and maturity belying the character’s youth. Bourne, unrecognizable in blonde wig as the sultry, enigmatic Claire of Theatre Of NOTE’s Shake, has a field day with self-centered, social-climbing Chick, the one character that can (and probably should) be overplayed. If there’s a Chick laugh that Bourne failed to get, I certainly missed it.

Set designer Shigeru Yaji eschews the ultra-realistic kitchen set of most Crimes Of The Heart productions. Yes, there’s the requisite refrigerator, stove, dinette table and chairs, etc., but in place of walls and windows Yaji situates the kitchen in front of an backdrop looking like an Asian painting of autumn leaves on gray wood, letting us know from the get-go that this Cries Of The Heart will be unlike any other we’ve seen. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz demonstrates what a gifted lighting designer can do to enhance a play’s moods, subtly lowering, raising, or shifting the lighting per each scene’s demands. Peter Erskine (Maya’s father) has composed an eclectic blend of Southern tunes absolutely right for each scene. Garry Lennon’s 1970s costumes are a perfect combination of time, place, and character. Kudos to to Ken Takemoto’s properties. Daniel Reaño-Koven is stage manager.

On an entirely personal note, this reviewer gives East West Players thumbs up for two productions in a row which, though not about the Asian American experience per se, have offered a dozen or so of our finest acting talents the chance to play roles not specifically written for Asian actors—something I’d love to see East West do twice per season. How about an all-Asian production of Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends, Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt? (To name just five off the top of my head.) How about a British farce by Ray Cooney or Alan Ayckbourn or anything by Sarah Ruhl, David Lindsay-Abaire, or Richard Greenberg? As for musicals, I can easily come up with half a dozen that would be a perfect fit for East West.

In the meantime, there’s the wonderful Crimes Of The Heart, a production that will prove a revelation to theatergoers new to East West Players and an unadulterated joy to East West subscribers and fans of “The Nation’s Premier Asian American Theatre.” Their words, not mine—but I heartily concur!

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
November 10, 2010
Photos: Michael Lamont

Comments are closed.