In Crimes of the Heart, tragedy reunites three sisters

Three sisters dealt a bad hand: (from left) Erin Mae Johnson, Tracie Hodgdon, and Lindsay Marcy
Vicki Madsen

In a town so Southern you can practically hear the kudzu growing over every available surface, a trio of sisters struggle with their lives and relationships. They are trying to find some direction in Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

Eldest sister Lenny lives with Grandpa (currently in the hospital), too shy to ask anyone on a date. Middle sister Meg has moved to California to try a singing career, wreaking havoc wherever she goes. And youngest sister Babe has just shot her husband, who is in the hospital in serious condition. As it turns out, it might have been better if her aim had been straighter.

Twin Cities theater legend Wendy Lehr directs a solid if not particularly thrilling Bloomington Civic Theatre production. Some of that missing drama comes from material that has lost quite a bit of its initial shock value over the past three decades, leaving behind a better-than-average melodrama. (Really, it can be a bit embarrassing to look back at past Pulitzer Prize winners.) Some of it also lands at the feet of the cast members, who are game for whatever the script offers but keep the show in soft focus at times when it needs a sharper, more driving edge.

Henley's script delves into the meaning of family and sisterhood, as seen through this trio on one particularly tough day during an autumn in the middle 1970s. The shooting has reunited the trio, as prodigal daughter Meg rushes home to support Babe. There's a heavy need for support, not just at this moment, but in general.

Many of the sisters' tormentors are offstage — either stuck in the hospital like Babe's husband and their grandfather or already in the grave. The trio are haunted by the long-ago suicide of their mother, which, typically for this family, made national news when she hung herself and the family cat.

They've also managed to build up walls between them as well, based on longstanding resentments — the perception that Meg was the chosen one, for example — and previously unspoken fears that finally explode over the course of the day, evening, and morning.

There's a lot at play for the actors, who do a uniformly solid job of getting inside the skin of their characters, whether it is Tracie Hodgdon's world-weary Lenny, Lindsay Marcy's free-living Meg, or Erin Mae Johnson's off-kilter Babe. Johnson gets to have the most fun, as her character is on the edge of being certifiable, which lets her have some entertaining moments throughout the play, such as describing how she made lemonade after shooting her husband. Hodgdon and Marcy play characters who live a bit more inside themselves, revealing truer personalities as the play unfolds.

The menfolk enter the picture via Meg's former lover, Doc Porter, and Babe's young attorney, Barnette Lloyd. Mike Postle brings a laid-back warmth to Doc, while Davd Beukema brings out a character trying to balance his own feelings for Babe with his longstanding desire to exact revenge on her husband.

The pace is a bit too languid at points. That may be due to the time — more than 30 years — that has passed since the play was first produced. A couple of generations' worth of Lifetime movies have stripped much of the force of a story about a woman shooting her abusive husband.

Still, Lehr deftly balances the play's humor (often black) and drama, and she gives the actors enough space to unfurl their characters without dragging down the show. Set designer Robin McIntyre gives us a rich, detailed look into the kitchen that seems to have trapped our characters, giving us only hints of the world beyond.

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