Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” is best described as Gothic comedy, a genre with such distinct pleasures that sometimes it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to pull off well. A production has to balance the chirpy with the macabre, linger on its characters’ eccentricities without veering into sitcom territory, and embrace the texture and complexity of its Southern setting — because what would a Gothic comedy be without a big ol’ drawl? — without straying into caricature.
The most recent Good Company Players production of this oft-produced title happily passes the test. It’s everything a “Crimes” should be: agreeable, funny, touching. While this production doesn’t always approach the level of theater magic, it’s a solid outing that reminds you just how well written Henley’s script is. And a superb performance from GCP veteran Elizabeth Fiester elevates the whole show.
It’s 1974 in smalltown Hazlehurst, Miss., and for the three MaGrath sisters, the world is in an uproar. The three have reunited to gather at their grandfather’s deathbed, but the old man’s offstage medical woes trails a distant second to the real crisis of the moment: The youngest sister, Babe (an endearing Brandi Martin), is in jail for shooting her husband. It’s up to her awkward young lawyer, Barnett (Raul Reyes), to keep her out of prison.
Pictured: Britt Downs, left, and Elizabeth Fiester in “Crimes of the Heart.”
The other two sisters have their own “crimes” to contend with as well. The middle one, Meg (an amusingly feisty Britt Downs), dumped her hometown boyfriend, Doc (Rick Timmons, who has an amiable stage presence but seemed hesitant on opening night) and skedaddled to Hollywood to pursue a career as a singer. And the oldest, the melancholy Lenny (Fiester), sabotaged her one successful romantic relationship because of her low self-image.
All this is played out against a backdrop ranging from quirky (Babe explains she shot her husband because “I didn’t like his stinkin’ looks!”) to tragic (in one poignant scene, the sisters recount their mother’s suicide). Director Denise Graziani deftly navigates the territory between the silly and heartfelt. It helps that the play’s most one-dimensional character, dreaded cousin Chick (Laura Tromborg, who plays the role just a shade too broadly), is seen in small glimpses, allowing a dose of small-town parochialism without overwhelming the rest of the material.
It’s Fiester, however, who really soars in this piece. Costume designer Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed outfits Lenny in defiantly nondescript clothing — a big plaid skirt, shapeless blue top — that contributes to the character’s overall lumpy sense. But it’s the way Fiester approaches the physicality of the role that makes her performance so memorable. It’s as if her very center of gravity shifts as she shuffles through David Pierce’s evocative ’70s era kitchen set.
Fiester doesn’t just play Lenny as a sad sack, however. Even when her character exclaims “I’ll never be happy!,” it’s not just a woe-is-me-moment. There’s grit, determination and, yes, a vein of humor as well. Sounds like the ingredients for a strong Gothic comedy to me.