Sister act — Crimes of the Heart at Jobsite Theater

A few setbacks keep a good production from being great.

click to enlarge SIBLING REVELRY: The Magrath sisters, from left, are played by Katrina Stevenson (Meg), Christen Petitt Hailey (Lenny) and Katie Castonguay (Babe).  - Crawford Long
Crawford Long
SIBLING REVELRY: The Magrath sisters, from left, are played by Katrina Stevenson (Meg), Christen Petitt Hailey (Lenny) and Katie Castonguay (Babe).

Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart is a Southern comedy that can be approached in various ways, two of which are summed up in the top-notch performances of Katie Castonguay as Babe and Christina Jane Capeheart as Babe’s intolerable cousin Chick in Jobsite Theater’s production. 

Castonguay’s take on the play is what you might call super-realistic: There’s not a detail that rings false, from her dewy-eyed melancholy when she recalls how she shot her husband, to her tentative and cautious smile when she realizes that her attorney’s attentions aren’t entirely professional. Castonguay’s been appearing on local stages for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve seen her in a role so prominent, and the good news is she has the chops of a first-rate talent. Her Babe is a sentimental romantic, longing for storybook love, willing to kill (or die) when that love seems threatened. This is one of those performances that you don’t want to look away from lest you miss some psychological subtlety. It’s what realistic acting ought to be: a series of truthful moments successively revealing new aspects of a complex human being.

Capeheart as Chick is just the opposite, and still abundantly satisfying. This is a wonderful caricature of Southern womanhood, bright and vain, garrulous and judgmental. Just a minute in Chick’s presence and we think we know all about her: how she belongs to all the “right” clubs, gossips unremittingly, dominates her poor husband and tyrannizes her children. We may have known one or two Babes in the course of our lives, but we’ve met a score of Chicks, people whose pretensions to superiority lead them to denigrate every other person with whom they come in contact. If this is a cartoon, well, it’s a stunning one, and as pleasing as it is colorful. If a roomful of Castonguays would have us searching for the hidden core of things, a roomful of Capehearts would have us basking in the play of surfaces. In either case, it’s good art and well worth our attention.

The other performances aren’t quite so interesting. True, J. Elijah Cho brings a likable simplicity to Barnett, the lawyer chosen to defend Babe against a charge of attempted murder. But Crimes is mostly about the three Magraths, Babe, Lenny, and Meg, and if Lenny and Meg don’t have the dimensionality of their embattled sister, this nearly plotless play can drag or seem to meander. That’s what happens, I’m sorry to say, when Katrina Stevenson as Meg and Christen Hailey as Lenny are center stage. Stevenson plays Meg as a hyper-kinetic egoist who just doesn’t have any other layers to her loud, self-dramatizing personality. Meg ought to be the femme fatale of Hazelhurst, Miss., the one who notably enticed Doc Porter to risk his life in a hurricane, and who’s directly responsible for the bodily harm that Doc incurred.

But there’s no mystery to Stevenson’s performance, just as there’s not an ounce of chemistry between them when Doc — played indifferently by the usually excellent Christopher Rutherford — comes to pay a call on the woman he supposedly once loved. Petitt Hailey as Lenny is more credible, but she fails to stamp her performance with any conspicuous qualities aside from a generally pallid busyness. This should be a fascinating character: She’s compassionate enough to look after the Magrath grandfather, she’s self-critical enough to believe that no man will ever desire her, she’s lonely enough to celebrate her 40th birthday by herself — but Petitt Hailey paints Lenny with a very few colors, and innocuous ones at that. The play is directed by Kari Goetz and Jaime Giangrande-Holcom in this Jobsite Theater production, and the excellent set, by Kaylin Gess, could be the kitchen of any home in Hazelhurst or, for that matter, Tampa. The uncredited costumes are top-drawer; I especially enjoyed Chick’s vivid togs and Barnett’s perfect bow tie.

Crimes of the Heart, you may remember, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981, and was later made into a popular movie with Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton. Castonguay and Capehart’s performances almost had me forgetting the film, but the rest suffer from too little insight. Those Magrath sisters should win our affection early, and should hold on to it through both acts. That’s not quite what happens here. And when the script’s as good as this one, that’s a real pity. 

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