Crimes of the Heart

Beth Henley
Union Theatre, Southwark
(2009)

Publicity photo

Southern sisterhood is on display amongst the Formica and ferns of a family kitchen in 1970s Mississippi. Yet despite the stormy passions simmering on the surface, something about this slightly underpowered production misfires.

It's the birthday of painfully insecure, comfort-eating eldest sister, Lenny - but nobody is celebrating. Mercurial little sister Babe has just shot her powerful husband, missing his heart but putting him in the hospital, and herself on bail. Blue eye-shadowed, black sheep Meg (who left under a literal cloud, during a hurricane she thought would "be fun") breezes into town at Lenny's panicked demand.

The three lead actresses are excellent, and are, importantly, believable as sisters. Marjorie Lopez Tibbs' hangdog Lenny plucks nervously at her shapeless brown cardigan. Trudi Jackson's Meg crackles with a brittle sexiness, and the scene in which she admits her nervous breakdown makes compelling, uncomfortable viewing. Gemma Sutton is great as Babe, veering between affectionate sisterly solidarity, abject despair, and a tense longing for young lawyer Barnett.

The chemistry between Babe and Barnett (a smouldering Leon Williams) is sizzling, but provides the only heat in a production in which the sensuous warmth of the Deep South is missing (though this is admittedly difficult to achieve in the Union's cold cellar space.) However, the cast do successfully negotiate the Southern accent.

Director Paul Foster finds some dark humour; on discovering that her sister's fifteen year old lover was "Black. Coloured. I mean, a Negro." Meg delivers the line "Babe, I didn't even know you were a Liberal" absolutely beautifully. However, the pace drops in the second act and there is some extraneous, saggy expository dialogue, though the tension which builds towards the end of Act III just about salvages the momentum, and the closing scene is lovely.

There are vague nods to the Southern Gothic in some discussion of dead cats and "crippled" children, and all three sisters are explicitly psychologically affected by a traumatic childhood. Babe seems almost bi-polar in her intensity at times, but the play seems to tiptoe around the edges of insight into mental illness instead of confronting it.

Though well acted, Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize winning play falls frustratingly shy of a forensic examination of its characters messy motives. Like Babe's bullet, it fires wide of the heart.

Reviewer: Beth O'Brien