The Mississippi Magrath sisters have set up housekeeping at Long Beach’s International City Theatre with all their quirks and charms and ups and downs intact in the best of the seven productions I’ve now seen of Beth Henley’s crowd-pleasing down-home comedy gem Crimes Of The Heart.

Henley’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner takes us deep down south to small-town Hazlehurst and twenty-four hours with 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 by her side.

Jennifer Cannon is eldest sister Lenny, who finds turning thirty today no cause for celebration. Not only does frumpy sis feel old beyond her years, she’s wondering how she’s ever “gonna continue holding my head up high in this community.”

And no wonder. Blonde beauty Babe (Megan Gainey), the youngest Magrath, has just 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!”

Not only that, but the gals’ “Ol’ Grandaddy” has been hospitalized due to a stroke; middle sister Meg (Robin Long) has arrived on Lenny’s doorstop, her West Coast showbiz “career” having bombed big-time; and no one but gossipy cousin Chick (Alexandra Wright) has remembered Lenny’s birthday.

Completing the cast of characters are Meg’s former boyfriend “Doc” (James Louis Wagner), now married with kids but still carrying a torch for his sexy ex; Barnette Lloyd (Wallace Angus Bruce), the earnest young lawyer who’s taken on Babe’s defense as a way to exact revenge on Zachery for ruining his father’s life; and the never seen Charlie Hill of Memphis, whose relationship with Lenny fizzled out when she ran out on him fearing rejection should she reveal her deepest, darkest secret.

Henley’s characters may be Mississippi-specific, but when played minus the over-the-top characterizations that can sink lesser productions than the one now playing at ICT, they’re as real as your family and mine.

Director Luke Yankee and his stellar cast understand that subtlety and nuance are what’s needed to make Crimes soar, and this is precisely what each and every one of them deliver, adding up to the perfect combination of laughter through occasional tears.

Cannon does revelatory work as Lennie, sense of worthlessness drummed in by an “Ol’ Granddaddy” who saw her as insurance he’d be taken care of till his dying day, a performance Cannon invests with a potent combination of heartbreaking need and resilient pluck.

Long brings failed songstress Meg to fabulous, firecracker life, taking this doubtlessly ignored middle child, one who’s become so self-centered she’ll take a bite of every one of Lenny’s birthday box of chocolates and think nothing of it, and making her achingly real.

Recent UCI-grad stunner Gainey reveals depth beneath Babe’s ditz (she did after all pause to make herself a pitcher of lemonade and drink three tall glasses before dialing 911) and a generous heart as big as her blonde mane.

The always terrific Wright resists the temptation to take gossip-spreading, floor-littering, cousin-from-hell Chick to caricature extremes, Bruce could not make for a more adorably, earnestly, boyishly charming Barnette, and Wagner does touching work as salt-of-the-earth Doc.

The production looks absolutely splendid on Pete Hickok’s 1970s Mississippi-specific kitchen-dinette set meticulously dressed by resident properties designers Patty and Gordon Briles and lit to subtle perfection by Stacy McKenney.

Resident costume designer Kim DeShazo once again scores high marks for her place-time-and-character specific outfits, with special snaps to Chick’s godawful red top-and-slacks.

Dave Mickey’s sound design not only offers realistic effects but Lynn Anderson’s “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” provides a just-right opener-closer.

Crimes Of The Heart is produced by ICT artistic director caryn desai. Erik Smith is assistant director. Bradley Zipser is production stage manager and Amber Goebel is assistant stage manager. Casting is by resident casting director Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris, CSA, is casting associate.

Meticulously directed and flawlessly cast, ICT’s Crimes Of The Heart proves the perfect Southern-charming antidote to whatever ails you. It’s every bit as scrumptiously satisfying as a slice of Mississippi Mud Pie.

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International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
June 9, 2017
Photos: Steven Georges


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