Totem Pole shows us `Crimes' done right

Eccentric sisters having a bad day


August 06, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Magrath sisters are having a bad day - "a real bad day," as youngest sister Babe would put it.

But a bad day for the three siblings at the center of Crimes of the Heart is a good day for theatergoers at Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., where Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is receiving a luminous production.

Bad days are nothing new to the three Magrath girls. Their mother had one years ago and hanged herself - along with the family cat. Now it's the 30th birthday of the eldest sister, Lenny; her prized horse has been killed by lightning, and Babe is about to be released on bail after shooting her abusive husband in the stomach.

Set in Hazlehurst, Miss., Henley's play is a hybrid - a Southern Gothic domestic comedy/ drama. It's a juxtaposition of styles that mirrors the Magraths' wildly fluctuating feelings. And, those fluctuations are splendidly conveyed by Deborah Hazlett as Lenny, Megan Anderson as Babe and Tess Hartman as middle sister Meg, under the direction of Baltimorean Wil Love.

Hazlett and Anderson, both company members at Everyman Theatre, also portrayed sisters in that theater's production of Proof last season. The Southern Magraths are much less straight-laced than the anxious Chicagoans in Proof. But once again, Hazlett is the mature, dependable sister and Anderson the fragile, troubled one.

On the surface, the Magrath sisters might appear to have little in common. Hazlett's responsible Lenny has remained in the family home taking care of grandfather. Anderson's Babe has done the conventional thing by getting married, but, far from settling down, she's the most mercurial sister. And Hartman's devil-may-care Meg is the spoiled artistic member of the trio, a beautiful heartbreaker who left Hazlehurst to launch a singing career in Hollywood.

Yet watch how attuned these three are when they sit around the kitchen table holding hands and preparing to play a game of cards, like old times. Then see how quickly they're at each other's throats - with fervor equal to the affection they've just shown.

Director Love's production is at its best in such fast-changing moments, and Anderson's performance, in particular, exemplifies these all-or-nothing emotions - her eyes gleaming joyously one moment and brimming with tears the next.

The secondary characters are also carefully depicted. Jay Edwards brings a bittersweet note to his portrayal of Meg's old beau, and as Babe's wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, Rusty Ross effectively hints at a budding attraction for his client. There's even a strong degree of recognizability in Traci Lyn Thomas' portrayal of the sisters' snooty cousin, although the role is basically a caricature.

Designer James Fouchard's lovingly detailed set captures the period feel of the comfy kitchen of a big, old Southern frame house in the 1970s. One touch is especially nice - a gable with a stained-glass arched window at the top of the proscenium. The window is not only a visual symbol for "Southern Gothic," but its ecclesiastical look suggests that this house is sacred ground for the Magrath family.

Henley's script has some clumsy, exposition-laden moments, and the beginning plays like a Southern-style sitcom. But the characters have a lot of heart, and that comes through unmistakably here.

"We've just got to learn how to get through these real bad days," Meg says near the end. At Totem Pole, the sisters do just that, and, thanks to the warmth they share, so do we.

Crimes of the Heart

Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, Caledonia State Park, 9555 Golf Course Road, Fayetteville, Pa., 15 miles west of Gettysburg

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 15

Tickets: $23-$30

Call: 888-805-7056

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