Comedic Turn

Catalina Players' production of 'Crimes of the Heart' highlights comedy over troubled emotions.

Neurotic Southern sisters: How many redundancies can you spot in that combination of three words?

The Magrath girls of Mississippi certainly have their share of troubles, and some of their problems start in their own minds. Lenny is turning 30 and officially entering spinsterhood, apparently doomed to stay there because of a poor self-image fostered by the suicide of her mother and an oppressive upbringing by her grandfather. Meg is a chain-smoking quasi-alcoholic who failed to make it big as a singer in Hollywood. Flighty young Babe doesn't think through the consequences of her actions, like shooting her abusive but influential husband in the stomach.

These three women throb with comic confusion in Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Crimes of the Heart, being presented dinner theater-style by the Catalina Players. It's an able production directed by Leslie J. Miller, but by emphasizing broad comedy, it neglects the elements of drama and character study lurking in Henley's script.

Two seasons ago, the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre offered its own staging of Crimes of the Heart, and the play seemed much deeper. You could sense the loneliness and personal shame lurking beneath all the funny stuff, and link the women's sorry states of mind to their mother's murder-suicide (she hanged the family cat along with herself) and to the controlling ways of father figures and husbands.

By and large, the Catalina Players version just goes for yuks. The emphatic acting of Renée C. Yancy (Lenny), Lisa Cook (Meg) and Amber Wright (their snippy, subtly vicious chatterbox cousin) is mostly surface-effect, with gestures and facial expressions imposed externally and appearing as if on cue. Little seems to emerge from deep within them.

More seems to be cooking on the inside in the work of Aubrey Robinson as Babe, James Hesla as her smitten attorney and especially Jesse Michael Mothershed, nicely low-key in the relatively small role of Meg's former love interest.

The production values are quite good, especially Joel Charles' solid set. (Although an off-center exit to interior stairs does seem to go off into another dimension; a nearby window overlooks a garden where part of the house perhaps ought to be.) Marcella Salcido's costumes set the play firmly in the late 1970s without resorting to doofy nostalgia--and tell us something about obnoxious cousin Chick that's quite different from what the UA costuming revealed. In the earlier production, Chick's dresses indicated that she had married up and suggested that she was affecting the snobbery of the social climber. Here, Chick retains membership in the Magrath sisters' lower middle class, and it's clear that she's been a nuisance from childhood.

The Catalina Players functions as a dinner theater, with the entire meal neatly dispatched before the play begins. (There's no distraction during the performance from roaming waiters or clinking tableware.) The meal varies from one production to the next; in honor of this play's Southern setting, the tasty entrée of the moment is chicken-fried, um, chicken. A vegetarian option should be available if you call in advance.

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