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Little Theatre's 'Crimes of the Heart' stands the test of time

Abusive BehaviorPulitzer Prize Awards

Completing its February run of three weekends at Bowie Playhouse, Prince George's Little Theatre offers fresh insight into Beth Henley's dark comedy "Crimes of the Heart" — winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Three decades after its premiere, Henley's folksy tale continues to provide a showcase for a strong ensemble of actors. It tells the story of three sisters who grew up in Hazlehurst, Miss., and return there at a difficult time for the youngest, as well as for the grandfather who raised them.

The Magrath sisters come together at their grandfather's home, where eldest sister Lenny welcomes youngest sister Babe, now out on bail after being jailed for shooting her husband in the stomach. Arriving later from Hollywood is free-spirited middle sister Meg, whose singing career has not flourished, leaving her distraught enough to require hospitalization. Now released, she remains vulnerably desperate.

These hard-luck were raised by their grandfather after their mother's suicide. Now Grandfather may be permanently hospitalized, and is cared for by Lenny, who remains in his home in a continuously frantic state.

The sisters love, support, and feud with each other as they confront their own demons. Sensible Lenny deals with her entrenched insecurities. Meg begins to acknowledge her instabilities and her failed career, and then copes by wildly reigniting an affair with a former lover. Both Lenny and Meg try to help Babe, who manages by withdrawing from the reality she faces.

PGLT director Sheilah Crossley-Cox encouraged her cast of stage sisters to investigate aspects of each character's life. She asked the actors to read about abused spouses and investigating conditions of 1970s mental hospitals, along with prevalent social and political attitudes on the era's racism. Supporting players were similarly inspired to investigate prevalent southern attitudes of that era, as evidenced by their sensitive portrayals.

Set designer Stephen Cox created a functional 1970s kitchen, with yellow walls that refuse to seem sunny and what appears to be an antique refrigerator. There is a screen door on one side and a stairway opposite, and little evidence of Southern gentility other than a coffee percolator and tin of cookies. Center in the room is a kitchen table with four surrounding chairs, where much of the action takes place.

Pamela Northrup plays Lenny, perhaps the most demanding role as the drab and insecure spinster sister who is central in her relating to the more expressive sisters. So skilled is Northrup's portrayal that she communicates a wealth of frustrated emotions by furrowing her eyebrows or twisting her mouth as if to suppress words that might wound.

We are fascinated by this family nurturer's pathetically drab exterior, which masks a dynamic, assertive woman capable of chasing her meddlesome, image-conscious cousin with a broom. Later we want to cheer her as she breaks free of her shackles of insecurity to pursue a treasured lost love.

Christa Kronser conveys Babe's underlying complexities: childlike innocence that fosters her generous acceptance of anyone of good will and her determination to be rid of a self-important, socially ambitious husband who is often abusive to her.

Caity Brown seems perfectly cast as self-destructive, impulsive would-be star Meg. Brown's Meg dominates every scene with her commanding stage presence, projecting her star quality and dancer's grace as she glides through a series of intricate moves. In her climactic scene, Meg chooses a final fling with her former love Doc Porter (Steven Feder), which is filled with passion and poignancy that later dissolves into apparent acceptance of mature reality.

In addition to Feder's excellent portrayal of Doc, the supporting role of Babe's awkward young lawyer Barnette Lloyd is well played by Justin Lewis who tries to keep Babe out of jail — and out of his heart. Making the most of the supporting role of prickly cousin Chick Boyle is Johanna Modak, who grows more obnoxious with every scene, evoking our annoyance and laughter.

PGLT's final "Crimes of the Heart" productions are is scheduled for February 17 at 8 p.m. and February 18 at 2 p.m. Call the box office at 301-937-7458 to purchase tickets.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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