A family kitchen in 1970s small-town Mississippi. That’s the setting of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/drama Crimes of the Heart, where the beleaguered MaGrath sisters squabble and reminisce.
At American Stage, where the play runs through Feb. 5, set designer Jack Magaw’s kitchen is remarkably detailed, complete with gas stove, refrigerator, running water in the sink, and the obligatory ‘70s wall phone, all of which will play pivotal roles. But this oasis of domesticity seems to fade off at its perimeters, surrounded on all sides by featureless boxes. These turn out to be scrims for artfully employed projections, but they also suggest that the kitchen itself is a kind of box — an island of domesticity that can comfort but also confine, until you finally have to break away or break down.
That’s what seems to have happened to the MaGraths’ mother, who made national headlines by hanging herself — and her cat — in the basement when the girls were young.
Why? wonders one sister to another.
“She had a bad day,” her sibling replies. “A real bad day. You know how it feels on a real bad day.”
The play opens on what turns out to be a real bad day for all three. Babe (Shelby Ronea), the youngest, has just shot and wounded her abusive husband (after which she sat down and made a pitcher of lemonade). Middle sister Meg (A. J. Baldwin) has returned from her allegedly glamorous career in Hollywood but tries to keep secret about what really happened to her there. Lenny (Rita Cole), who stayed home in Hazlehurst to take care of Old Granddaddy, learns that her beloved horse has been struck by lightning. Plus, no one seems to have noticed that it’s her birthday.
The cast beautifully navigates the many shifts from joyous reunion to jealous confrontation, from simmering discontent to inevitable explosions. Cole does a masterful job of conveying the hurt and jealousy that underlie her efficient bustling-about. Baldwin is a charismatic Meg: cagey and blunt, then exhilarated when she reconnects with old flame Doc Porter (an understatedly sexy Henian Boone). Ronea is sweetly off-kilter and ultimately heart-rending as the vulnerable Babe, while Xavier Mikal is the perfect combo of nebbishy and fervent as her lawyer/suitor, and Jada Griffin is perfectly annoying as cousin and neighbor Chick.
Under the direction of Elizabeth Margolius, all have a sure handle on the darkly comic sensibility that suffuses Henley’s play. Her characters may do bad things, or bad things may happen to them, but sometimes they just have to laugh.
A note about the casting: In the original Broadway production in 1981, the MaGrath sisters and all the other small-town Southerners were played by white actors. At American Stage, the cast is all-Black. That choice is only occasionally jarring — you’ll know the moments when you hear them — but these actors are so believable in their roles that the question of race seems pretty much irrelevant.