Written in 1978, Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Crimes of the Heart” occupies a beloved place in the American theater.
Populated by four strong, young female characters in its cast of six, the deep-fried tragi-comedy is a popular staple of acting classes, college productions and community theaters in search of a crowd pleaser for their patrons.
It is also very much a product of its time.
Cutting Edge Theater’s decision to update its production of “Crimes” into the present day, complete with amenities such as cell phones and emails, drains the emotional charge from many of the conflicts and obscures the motives of its central characters.
Coupled with some shaky casting, it adds up to an underwhelming evening of theater that is only slightly mediated by the pleasures of the actual text.
With its missed light and sound cues, this “Crimes” feels like the community effort it is. But I am inclined to forgive the production’s technical failings. It’s the treatment of the play that gives concern.
Inescapably, “Crimes” is a period piece, and its late Seventies setting is crucial not only in regard to its situations but also for its larger themes.
Following the laughs, tears, and secrets of the McGrath sisters who inhabit its emotional center, the three-act play subtly chronicles the movement of the American South, particularly in regards to women, from a crushing place of limits into the beginnings of a society more open with possibility.
It’s the story of budding spinster Lenny, wildcat Meg and disappointed housewife Babe. They are still haunted by the echoes of their past involving suicide, lost loves, and an absent but still looming grandfather.
Sometimes plays are updated to make the material more accessible. But director Cameron Tyler Welch’s choice of the contemporary period muddies the waters here and makes motives puzzling.
Conflicts that are based on failing to answer letters or return phone calls look like acts of outright cruelty when methods of communication are changed from rotary phones to current technology. Reckless but understandable decisions involving divorce, infidelity, and abuse are transformed into awful, inescapable acts in the context of the new media.
And no one, and I mean no one, had a hurricane party on the Gulf Coast with the approach of Katrina.
Most importantly, the three cornpone sisters, who in 1978 would be heroically struggling against the currents of their times, look hopelessly caught in a crisis that few in this present would recognize as one of their own.
The casting does not alleviate the difficulties. Not a single performer fits their role. None are bad, but none are right.
Rebecca Eye, Amy Martinez, and Francisca Harold (as Lenny, Meg and Babe respectively) all have skills, but at no time throughout the evening do we believe they are sisters.
This isn’t a matter of looks. Instead, it is a failure to share the mannerisms, cadences and familiarity one expects to see from siblings. They appear more as friendly acquaintances.
The problem is compounded by inconsistent accents. “Crimes” demands Southern dialects, but with the exception of Emily Felps as the scheming cousin Chick, the twangs and drawls come and go at best.
Peter J. Smith is a sweet presence as the man Meg let get away, but we don’t see the chemistry between him and Martinez. And Joey Harmon fails to capture the fervor and passion required of Babe’s defense attorney Barnette.
Cutting Edge actually does a lovely job creating a comfortable and welcoming space for its audiences with clear sightlines and a surprisingly robust effort in establishing the set, the kitchen of the McGrath sisters.
If only they had put that focus on the play itself.
Cutting Edge Theater presents ‘Crimes of The Heart’
Where: 747 Robert Blvd. Slidell
When: Aug. 22-23, 8p.m.
Tickets: $20 at cuttingedgetheater.com/box_office or (985) 649-3727
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.