We can't choose our siblings. But, if we're lucky, we never want to lose the ties that bind us, even when they hurt a little. Or a lot.
That's one of the things learned by the three Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Miss., over the course of a bumpy day and night in Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning dramedy "Crimes of the Heart," now enjoying a brilliant revival by Everyman Theatre. The production, which opened Friday night, has already been extended an extra week. It deserves to run even longer.
Although not a profound stage work on the order of, say, the best of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, the play reveals telling insights into the human condition. A whole mess of humor helps. And Everyman's tightly knit cast, impeccably directed by Susanna Gellert in her company debut, underlines the heart behind the "Crimes."
Set in 1974, the plot is triggered by a simple little incident involving the 24-year-old Babe (Dorea Schmidt), the youngest sister, who says she shot her husband because she "didn't like his stinking looks." Nothing like a scandal in a small town to bring a family back together.
Trying to maintain composure and order, while also trying to celebrate her 30th birthday, which everyone else seems to have forgotten, is the oldest — Lenny (Beth Hylton). She's the one with the "underdeveloped ovary," who once let love pass her by and is sure there'll never be another opportunity.
Then there's middle sister Meg (Megan Anderson). She supposedly got all the talent in the family and has been off in Hollywood, making it big. Some folks in Hazleton still consider her "cheap Christmas trash." Known for riding out Hurricane Camille in 1969 with a boyfriend, Meg returns home on hurricane-force winds of her own.
Spread over three acts that seem to fly by in this staging, "Crimes of the Heart" contains its share of familiar types, situations and messages. They're the sort that fueled "The Family" skits on "The Carol Burnett Show" and any number of other works about tragi-comic Southerners (the independent film "Sordid Lives" and its short-lived TV version comes to mind).
By seizing forcefully on all that is true and funny in the play, and knowing how to put extra zing in each twist along the way, the Everyman revival makes the whole thing seem fresh and absorbing. Not to mention touching, more often and in more ways than you might expect.
There's a basic honesty at work here, and it shows in everything, right from the first glimpse of the spot where all the action unfolds — the Magraths' old-fashioned kitchen, conjured up in minute, yet thoroughly natural, detail by scenic designer Debra Booth (another welcome Everyman debut).
Schmidt is ideal as Babe, a woman who's still part-teen inside, still naive and silly and unrestrained. The actress brings out all of those qualities in a portrayal that is as effortless as it is engaging. What jury would possibly convict her? Oh, shucks, I guess there is that lil' ol' interracial adultery ("I didn't even know you were a liberal," Meg says to her).
But Babe can sort of explain that, just as she can all her other behavior, even a tendency to prepare lemonade at the most unlikely moments. And Schmidt makes you believe in everything, including her latest attachment to a saxophone (the actress produces sounds not heard on that instrument since Lucy Ricardo honked through "Glow-Worm").
In gesture and voice — all the accents in the cast are persuasive — Schmidt creates just the right force to send the story spinning. She gets some of the most crucial material, including revelations about the death of the sisters' mother (if it hadn't involved a cat, it "wouldn't have gotten all that national coverage," Babe notes), and she makes the most of it.
Likewise gifted at revealing multiple sides to a personality, Hylton delivers an endearing portrayal as the pent-up, rather pathetic Lenny. The character's transformation near the end, which could easily ring hollow, comes across in delectable fashion.
Anderson, wearing a perfectly tacky '70s outfit (Levonne Lindsay designed the spot-on costumes), gives a spirited performance that deftly captures Meg's mix of bravado and uncertainty.
There is colorful supporting work from Katy Carkuff as Chick, the cousin who puts on airs and panty hose with equally appalling results; and Danny Gavigan as Meg's old beau, now married but not much wiser.
As Barnette, a young lawyer with an agenda and a soft spot for the Magraths, Jamie Smithson makes a sterling Everyman debut. He is terrific, whether getting the vapors around the women or sporting a nervous, toothy grin that could light Biloxi.
In their scenes together, Smithson and Schmidt send off subtle sparks that leave a wonderful afterglow, one more telling touch in a deeply satisfying production, one of Everyman's finest in recent years. It would be a crime to miss it.