Family a funny and tragic thing in MCT’s “Crimes of the Heart”
You know that feeling you get when something horrible happens, and it’s so emotionally devastating that you can’t help but burst out laughing because doing anything else would destroy you?
That’s not what Crimes of the Heart is like. True, the season opener for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is filled with moments like that, but director Mary MacDonald Kerr has crafted their collective tragicomic might into a strong, solid show.
Crimes of the Heart, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981 and was made into a movie several years later, focuses on the Magrath sisters: Lenny (Laura Gray), Meg (Georgina McKee) and Babe (Laura Frye). It’s supposed to be a happy reunion, as Meg travels from California back to the family home in Mississippi for Lenny’s 30th birthday, but the small matter of Babe shooting her abusive husband puts the first snarl in things.
From there, things only get better/worse.
As for MCT’s production, nothing could be further from the truth. The show wheels back and forth from the deepest, darkest tragedy to the silliest, most slapstick comedy without hesitation, like an acrobat doing cartwheels along a slender tightrope. It’s at its best in the moments where things are so grim they grow ridiculous, or those where its characters are so brutally, hilariously honest that they make you want to cry.
This tenuous balance isn’t always the best thing for the play, unfortunately. There are a number of moments where that ambivalence means you don’t know whether a gag is going to come down on the side of tragedy or comedy. One in particular, a life or death situation depicted offstage, is harrowing enough that I couldn’t pay attention to the (extremely important) scene occurring onstage — I was too busy waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The Magrath sisters themselves more than make up for such moments. Gray skillfully keeps Lenny lovable despite the character’s premature grumpy old lady tendencies, and the moments when she breaks out of her shell are pure joy. McKee is equally talented in her portrayal of Meg, shifting demeanors in a flash as necessary to survive. And Frye, who must walk the line between tragedy and hilarity more frequently than any other, does so with a vibrancy that suits Babe perfectly.
While each gets their own foil — Lenny’s is their overbearing cousin Chick Boyle (Karen Estrada), Meg’s is former lover Doc Porter (Jonathan Wainwright) and Babe’s is young lawyer Barnette Lloyd (Neil Haven) — the play’s funniest and most heartfelt moments come when they’re together. After all, these are three very different women — Lenny is the neurotic, bitter eldest sibling who takes on too much responsibility; Meg is the caustic, emotionally stunted middle child who left home as soon as she could; and Babe is the over-sweet, slightly manic baby of the family — and they know just how to push each other’s buttons, to great comedic effect.
When the pendulum swings back to tragedy, though, they’re right there for each other, and it’s a credit to Gray, McKee and Frye that we never question that fact. Even in the moments where Lenny reams out Meg for being the favorite child or when Babe betrays Lenny’s secret, broken-off love affair to Meg, you never doubt for a second that Meg will in turn fight for Babe’s chance to be free of her husband, or that Babe will convince Lenny to give love another try.
These women have committed the crimes of the play’s title, it’s true. And their lives are generally worse off because of those crimes. But they’ve got each other as public defenders, and that — like the play itself — is something worth celebrating.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Crimes of the Heart runs through August 28 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway St. Tickets start at $15, with a $5 discount for seniors and students. For showtimes or to get tickets call (414) 291-7800 or stop by MCT’s website.