Having earlier this year joined forces to bring Los Angeles their multiple Scenie Award-winning production of David Auburn’s Proof, Open Fist Theatre Company and Aquila Morong Studio For Actors are reunited once again for a terrific intimate theater revival of Beth Henley’s Crimes Of The Heart.

Let it be noted that that per an agreement with the play’s licensers not to invite reviewers to the production, my decision to write the following is entirely a personal one. Briefly put, the work being done onstage at Open Fist is simply too wonderful not to write about.

Henley’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning comedy takes us deep down south to Hazlehurt, Mississippi, where we spend twenty-four hours with the very Southern Quirky and ultimately utterly endearing Magrath sisters, a sibling trio whose lives haven’t been the easiest since their mother took her own life some years back in a sort of murder-suicide that attracted nationwide attention, Mrs. Magrath having hanged both herself and “that old yellow cat,” presumably side by side.

Amy Stewart is eldest sister Lenny, who finds turning thirty hardly a cause for celebration. Not only does Lenny not feel young anymore, she’s wondering today how she’s ever “gonna continue holding my head up high in this community.” We soon learn that Lenny’s youngest sister Babe (Rae Foster) has been arrested for shooting her politician husband Zachery because, as 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 has only last night been struck by lightning and killed on the spot. Completing this perfect storm of family disasters, the Magrath sisters’ “Ol’ Grandaddy” has been hospitalized due to a stroke. Oh, and no one but gossipy cousin Chick (Deb Knox) has remembered Lenny’s birthday today.

Before long, middle sister Meg (Nadia Bowers) 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 siree, Bob, not well at all.

A trio of male characters complete the cast. There’s Meg’s former boyfriend Doc (understudy Brett Howell), 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 (John Bobek) is the earnest 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. Rounding out 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.

Open Fist/Aquila Morong’s Crimes Of The Heart is the fourth production of Henley’s comedy classic I’ve seen in just the past eighteen months, and may well be the best of the bunch.


Scenie-winning Best Director John Hindman helms Crimes Of The Heart with the same attention to performance that highlighted his Proof, hardly surprising for a production most of whose members are studying at Aquila Morong, the studio for professional actors where Hindman teaches Master Scene Study, and where a scene from Crimes inspired the director to propose a fully staged production with Stewart reprising the role of Lenny.

Unlike the mostly “plain Jane” Lennys who have preceded her, the exquisite Stewart makes the eldest Magrath sister unattractive in her own eyes only, her sense of worthlessness perhaps drummed into her by an “Ol’ Granddaddy” who wanted to make sure that he got taken care of till his dying day. Heartbreakingly vulnerable yet with an inner grit that stubbornly refuses to be submerged, Stewart’s Lenny grabs our hearts from her first entrance and never lets go.

Broadway vet Bowers may not quite pass for Meg’s twenty-seven years, but other than that she’s as good as it gets, resisting the temptation to take the would-be songstress over the top, keeping her utterly grounded in the bitter reality that’s sent her home for some family affection, all the while remaining every bit the self-centered middle sis who’ll blithely take a bite of every one of Lenny’s birthday box of chocolates (her only gift, mind you) without even bothering to read the label and see that the nuts she’s searching for won’t be found in this box of Assorted Cremes.

As for the youngest Magrath, a lesser actress than Foster might easily choose to overplay Babe’s ditziness. By contrast, the gifted Texas native plays her with a subtlety and depth that make this Babe far more than just the family dumb bunny. No matter where a scene’s focus of attention may be, Foster remains always “in the moment,” her subtle changes of expression giving us a window into this generous-hearted but deeply troubled young woman’s soul.

That blondes Stewart, Bowers, and Foster could easily pass for sisters in real life is an added plus.

Bobek comes close to stealing every scene he’s in as vendetta-bound, love-struck, eager-beaver Barnette. Statuesque North Carolinian Knox underplays Chick to splendidly funny effect. Native Alabaman Howell is everything a Doc should be—folksy, salt-of-the-earth sincere, and dadgum sexy to boot.

Set designer Zachary B. Guiler has masked the futuristic set of Open Fist’s mainstage Machinal with a carefully-detailed Mississippi kitchen/living room circa 1975, painstakingly decorated by Bruce Dickinson and Ina Russell and artfully lit by Andy Wagner. Anthony Tran’s costumes are Perfectly ‘70s, and suit each character to a T. Peter Carlstedt gets thumbs up for his fine sound design, with the Shirelles’ “Mama Said” an inspired choice to begin and end one of those “days like this” the Magrath girls’ Mama must have warned them about.

Crimes Of The Heart is produced by Caitlin R. Campbell. James Spencer is scenic consultant, Alyssa Escalante stage manager, and Tamara Becker assistant stage manager. Deborah Aquila and Donna Morong are producers.

Having now seen a grand total of five productions of Crimes Of The Heart, Beth Henley’s contemporary comedy classic has now earned a place on my list of all-time favorite plays, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing another five times or more—providing that the folks staging it get it as oh-so right as those behind this all-around splendid production most certainly have.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 22, 2011
Photos: Maia Rosenfeld

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