Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Theater review: Crimes of the Heart at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
The message was one of hope.
Throughout this story three sisters are struggling with their own demons, several family skeletons in the closet and the scrutiny of the small town in Mississippi in which they grew up. Love, fear, depression and hope are explored within the context of their relationship. Crimes of the Heart (presented by Contemporary Theatre of Dallas through July 15) won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and was nominated for a Tony Award in the 1980s. It is a well-written play that explores family relationships and delivers a strong message at the end.
The play opens with Lenny, the eldest sister, sadly "celebrating" her 35th birthday alone. She places a single candle in a small cookie and sings "Happy Birthday" to herself while making wishes. For each wish, a new candle.
Soon we are introduced to her nosy and judgmental cousin Chick, followed by an old family friend, Doc. She has two younger sisters. Meg is the middle child who has moved to Hollywood to pursue a singing career. Becky, who the family calls Babe, has just shot her husband, a prominent attorney and politician. The three sisters are reunited when Meg shows up for a visit, Babe is bonded out of jail and the audience is witness to their turmoil mixed with sisterly banter and fun through the rest of the show.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas is a converted church. As soon as I walked into the theater I was impressed with the transformation. However, I soon forgot all about the theater itself when I saw the set. The set, designed by Clare DeVries, was expertly crafted. We were given a view of the kitchen, with a working faucet, and dining room of the home the three sisters grew up in and where Lenny still resides with their sickly "old grandpa."
The thing that separates a good set from a great set is details. This set was a great set. There was so much attention to detail in both the design of the set pieces and in the prop choices and placement by Jen Gilliam that I found myself thoroughly enjoying the minutes before the show started.
The show is set in 1974 and I recognized so many familiar items in the home, on the walls, on top of the cabinets, right down to the towels hanging in the kitchen. As the show progressed, additional period props were pulled out of bags, drawers and cabinets that brought a nostalgic smile to my face. Even the combinations of items on the wall, right down to the photos which included a few with the slightly red hue that photo paper in the '70s notoriously had, were well-planned and gave the impression of a single decorating influence in the home. This attention to detail revealed a production that truly intended to deliver a quality show. DeVries and Gilliam could have gotten away with far less and I would not have noticed. Their choice to include such detail definitely enhanced the experience and is an indicator of the caliber of the production.
Sound design by Richard Frohlich was primarily focused on ambient music before and after the show and during intermission, with a few sound effects when appropriate. The choice of music was another facet of this quality production. Listening to the music of the early '70s definitely set the tone and helped move the audience back in time so that we could experience the world of the Magrath sisters more intimately. Lighting design by Kenneth Farnsworth was appropriate and was mostly used to set the time of day as we progressed through the days and evening in the story.
Frequently in theater, we will be expected to not notice when it appears that the characters have only one set of clothes – those on their backs. This was not so with this production. Annell Brodeur expertly designed a set of costumes for each character. Every wardrobe change was appropriate to the situation and character and was definitely from the period. The familiarity that started with the set and props continued as we watched Meg in trendy '70s outfits, Babe in upper-class housewife attire, always in pink. Chick in fashionable ensembles and always wearing green or blue eye shadow (or both). Only Lenny wore the same clothes throughout the show, perfectly in line with her perception of herself as a matronly old maid.
The casting for this show was well done. The entire ensemble performed well and the interactions between them were natural and appropriate. I can't say there was any one cast member who stood out because they all did a fantastic job.
Diane Casey Box's portrayal of Lenny Magrath revealed the turmoil and loneliness that was always present behind her façade of strength. As the eldest sister, Lenny took the role of mother when the three went to live with their grandfather after the untimely death of their single mother. Lenny was more difficult to get to know than the other characters but this was exactly what the role called for and Box portrayed Lenny as the sister who took care of the others and had only harsh opinions of herself.
Marianne Galloway swept in as Meg Magrath, returning home for a visit, and instantly we began to understand this character as a woman who had lived a rather wild but always excused life, pursuing danger and trying to prove to herself that she didn't care about anyone else. Galloway expertly portrayed Meg as she went through a cycle of emotions and attitudes.
Babe Botrelle was played by Jenae Verger-Glanton with subtle skill. Initially seeming like a bubbly, positive person, the portrayal of the youngest Magrath sister soon revealed the storm that had been brewing inside of her. This portrayal deftly transitioned between the public Babe and the private Babe and I ended up feeling sorry for this woman who had just committed a crime.
John Brumley as Barnette Lloyd, the young but driven attorney working to keep Babe out of prison, was sweet and appropriately awkward when put into social situations. Whitney Holotik, as cousin Chick, was plastic and judgmental which was exactly what the role called for. Each time she spoke there was meanness mixed with her concern over Babe's situation, and more to the point, what it would mean to the family's reputation. Doc Porter, played by Dan Burkarth, was a small role meant to increase our understanding of Meg's character. Burkarth played Doc well as the friendly past love interest of Meg's.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas chooses shows that explore relationships and Crimes of the Heart definitely fit that description. Although the Magrath sisters had seen more than their fair share of difficulty and loss in their lives, the message the show delivered was one of hope. It is a story worth telling, and this production told it with expertise.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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