There isn’t much about playwright Beth Henley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Crimes of the Heart,” now playing at Flying Anvil Theatre, that should be funny. But it is often hilarious.
The family patriarch, known only as Ole Granddaddy, is close to taking his last breaths in the Hazlehurst, Miss., hospital. The three Magrath sisters have gathered at the family home to await his death.
Lenny (Meg Sutherland), the oldest, has lived there all along, caring for her grandfather. Unfortunately, this deathwatch is also her 30th birthday, only one of Henley’s nuanced comments about growing up a Southern lady, with its built-in milestones. Lenny hasn’t found dating, or even meeting men, a very easy process.
Meg (Danielle Pressley), the middle sister (another of Henley’s subtle comments about the destiny of children trapped between older and younger siblings), left for Hollywood years ago to pursue a singing career, about which she has mostly lied to the family about her imagined success. She comes home to both face the truth about herself and confess to the lies she told her grandfather, not to mention help deal with the mess her younger sister, Babe (Gray Casterline), got herself into by shooting her lawyer husband, Zachary Butrelle, in the stomach.
Added to this comically toxic mix is their self-perceived superior cousin Chick (Kara Van Veghel) who, in addition to being a motor-mouth whenever she is on stage, has mastered the visual-humor gymnastics of changing her pantyhose in front of a live audience.
There are five males in the play, three of them never seen. The one that matters most may be Lenny’s 20-year-old horse, Billy Boy, who is struck dead by lightning on Lenny’s birthday.
Meg’s old boyfriend, Doc Porter (Brad Stapleton), despite being married and with children of his own, shows up when he hears Meg is back in town. He seems to be part of Henley’s way of showing that Meg’s life before leaving for Hollywood wasn’t very rosy either. When Meg and Porter had been on a date in the past, she had left him for dead when he got hurt, an injury that left him with a limp and cost him his medical career.
Then there’s Barnette Lloyd (John Simmins), the young, still-wet-behind-the-ears attorney who seems mostly interested in taking Babe’s case because he has a vendetta against Butrelle but ends up falling in love with Babe instead. Butrelle himself is also in the hospital, talked about but never seen on stage.
None of the characters in this play, with the exception of Chick, is at ease with herself or himself. I suspect that’s director and Flying Anvil artistic director Jayne Morgan’s intent. Sutherland, in particular, seems to have a gift for playing awkward, ill-suited-for-their-own-skin characters, as she did in Clarence Brown Lab Theatre’s production of “Becky Shaw” last October.
In the broad sense, “Crimes of the Heart” is about young people realizing that life isn’t over just because you screw things up. It’s also about anticipating the difference the future can make, depending on how hard you are willing to try.
It’s also about realizing that the people in the house next door or in the better neighborhood across town are having similar kinds of difficulties if you just had the chance to look behind their newly painted front door.
Their lives may actually be sadder, or funnier, or both, than your own.
“Crimes of the Heart,” a play about life, not as we wish it could be, but as it is, runs through March 24 at Flying Anvil Theatre, 1300 Rocky Hill Road. For tickets, performance times and more information click here.