Cap and Bells stages Henley’s prize-winning drama

January 24 through 26 in Currier Ballroom, Cap and Bells presented Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Crimes of the Heart.” Directed by Christina Ronai ’00, the play chronicles the lives of three sisters as they struggle with the deaths of their older relatives and with personal crises involving husbands and would-be lovers. As the sisters attempt to untangle the web that is their hopes, loves, hates and smashed realities they eventually find solace in new, more honest relationships with each other. The play unwinds slowly. As each sister’s life crisis is acted out, relevant events from the character’s complicated past are revealed.

Deceptive calm is broken by hurried exchanges, tormented speeches and the staging of private thoughts and rituals. Between impassioned confessions, tender bonding, hopeful conversations, desperate acts and eruptions of hatred and despair, the private hell that the sisters lived through in the past is communicated in extensive conversations and monologues.

The three sisters are the best developed of the play’s characters, but they only occasionally rise above their still largely one dimensional personalities. This is especially true of Lenny and Meg Magrath. The former instantly recalls the spinster stereotype, while the latter, with her former Hollywood aspirations and wild ways, feeds into the bad girl stereotype. Babe, the youngest sister who is in the most immediate crisis of all three, serves as the center of the three and resonates as the most interesting character through her concern for her family and reactions to her own situation.

The supporting characters are predictably flatter. The sisters’ cousin is a horrific caricature of a woman consumed by upper class community mindlessness and concern over what the neighbors would say. Doc Porter, Meg’s old love that she left for Hollywood, glides through the play as a device for Meg to react to. Barnette Lloyd, the lawyer who volunteers to rescue Babe from her crisis reveals himself to be a handful of contrived motivation varnished with some southern gentility.

Many of the events in the play gave a strong impression of artifice. The disparate threads of the piece leapt from event to event and coalesced in a disjointed manner. The acting, at times, had difficulty handling this challenge. The play contains numerous emotional shifts that the actors often struggled to execute well. A character would flutter from emotion to emotion without really hitting any of them. In some cases the character would seemingly revert to one emotional state with little regard to what was going on around him or her. In some cases this disregard and insularity of the characters gave way to a farce-like effect that may or may not have been intentional.

Throughout the play there were problems with the characters’ longer speeches. The phrasing of the lines would seem unnatural or forced. In many cases the cast was not able to make the lines effective, whether through fault of their own or the playwright I am not sure. This same problem also plagued much of the dialogue, but was by no means the rule, with an improvement in cohesion and delivery occurring in the third act.

Minor flaws were also evident throughout the play. A particularly noticeable one was the inability of the cast, with the exception of Pete Stein ’00 as Barnette Lloyd, to maintain a southern accent. Most of the other characters slipped in and out of their accents, almost all having given up by the final act.

Some of the acting, though, was done well. The actors did succeed in portraying personalities, as they did in representing several scenes. As previously mentioned, the third act was the best executed. Many of the scenes, including the emotionally grueling final minutes, were quite effective. Yet this did not compensate for some of the performance’s shortcomings.

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