We’ve all experienced that one single incident in life where everything comes full circle and, for better or for worse, our lives are forever changed. When we have the courage to look back, we’re reminded of those who stood beside us through it all. That’s the theme of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winner, Crimes of the Heart. The play, written by Beth Henley, is onstage at Asheville Community Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 28.
This is the story of three Mississippi sisters who’ve drifted apart, but when Babe (played by Sarah Billings) shoots her abusive husband, tongues start wagging all over town. This stirs wild, wandering songstress Meg (played by Reeni Lindblom Dowd) homeward to their grandfather’s house where their faithful sister Lenny (played by Julianne Arnall) has been a caregiver.
Arnall, as the dowdy homebody, matches the atmosphere to perfection. She portrays the character with a sense of hopelessness, a woman lost in life with all the cards stacked against her. She’s the martyr who stayed behind while her sisters blossomed. Arnall emotes joy at her sisters’ reunion, but with an ingenious stunned rattle of discomfort. What a jab in the chest it is to find out Meg has not been reading Lenny’s letters.
Lindblom Dowd, as the unhinged sister, progresses from a simmer to a modest boil by act 2. Her drinking scene with lost-love Doc Porter (played by William Stamey) is truly touching. Lindblom Dowd does a great job portraying a woman whose dreams of becoming a famous singer have faded into oblivion. However, as is the case in most dramatic pieces, her wig takes away from her character’s realism. It was difficult through the majority of the play to suspend disbelief.
Billings, as the irrational sister, is the production’s loosest screw. Babe is meant to promote the play’s tormented heart, and Billings does not rise to the challenge. While not a bad actress, she shows a limited depth. The momentum of the play was often stalled by the incorrectness of the character’s interpretation. Babe is meant to be haunted, not consistently bubbly. Perhaps that spookiness will come within future performances. It’s not an easy role — one that Sissy Spacek was well suited for in the film, so much so that she was nominated for an Oscar.
This women-driven piece was never meant to be about the men. That said, both male characters are relatively flat. Stamey fares better, with a quiet intensity, but David Dowd, as Babe’s lawyer Barnett Lloyd, sounds forced and the performance doesn’t work at all.
The comedy rebounds in the skillful hands of Alex Foote, as the vulture of a cousin, Chick Boyle. In a scene-stealing supporting performance, Foote manages, in one fell swoop, to dart away with this play. Her natural energy excites, awakening even the drowsiest of audience members. Always a viable actress, she’s choosy with her roles and has never quite hit the local mainstream. Consider this Foote’s breakout performance.
ACT never fails in making its productions technically masterful. The scenic design by Jack Lindsay is one of the most beautiful sets in recent memory. Retro wallpaper pops, worn kitchen counters invite us to sit upon them, and a rotary wall-phone with a long cord pleads for us to dial back into our past. Accurate costume design by Carina Lopez flourishes and lighting design by Adam Cohen enhances the forlorn feeling of days gone by. There are places where director Eric Mills could’ve drawn more emotion from the script. The notorious ending, meant to be shocking, was chandelierless and failed to impress. Still, Crimes of the Heart is an attractive venture.
WHAT: Crimes of the Heart
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E Walnut St, AshevilleTheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Aug. 28. Friday and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m, matinees on Sundays, at 2:30 p.m. $12-$22.