Lawrence Toppman

These ‘Crimes’ do pay – in laughter

Three sisters in Mississippi in 1974 (Jennifer Barnette, Meredith Wesbrooks Owen and Emily Klingman) bond over birthday cake in “Crimes of the Heart.”
Three sisters in Mississippi in 1974 (Jennifer Barnette, Meredith Wesbrooks Owen and Emily Klingman) bond over birthday cake in “Crimes of the Heart.” Chris Timmons

It’s the summer of 1974 in Mississippi. Most Americans worry about the fall of Vietnam to the Communists and the imminent resignation of President Nixon, but the town of Hazlehurst is abuzz over the attempted murder of state Sen. Zachary Botrelle. Seems his young wife, Babe, plugged him because she didn’t like his looks. Though she’s been spending an awful lot of time hanging around young Willie T …

That’s the beginning of Beth Henley’s best-known play, the Pulitzer-winning “Crimes of the Heart.” Henley, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., began work on it at 24 after graduating from Southern Methodist University. She went on to write more than a dozen plays – Charlotte Repertory Theatre premiered her uneven “Signature” in 1995 – but never managed such an effective mixture of heart, humor and craftsmanship again. Director Christian Casper rightly stresses the laughs in Theatre Charlotte’s production, yet the final feeling is one of quiet tenderness.

Three sisters gather on the 30th birthday of the eldest, lonely Lenny (Meredith Wesbrooks Owen). Meg (Jennifer Barnette) has come home from Los Angeles, her singing career and romantic relationships unfulfilled. Babe (Emily Klingman) has moved into the house provided by their grandfather to await trial for shooting her husband, though inexperienced attorney Barnette Lloyd (Cole Long) thinks he can get her off.

Henley makes all three sympathetic and unsympathetic by turns. Lenny’s selflessness is linked to spinelessness; annoying as bullying cousin Chick Boyle (Zendyn Duellman) may be, Chick has a husband and kids, while Lenny dreams of what might have been. Meg injured Doc Porter (Allen Eby) physically five years before – she persuaded him not to evacuate during Hurricane Camille, and a roof fell on him – and now she’s willing to injure him in another way, if he leaves his wife. Babe’s infantilism, which might have been winning in a girl of 18 on her wedding day, has begun to cloy.

Yet Henley brings forth their insecurities and vulnerabilities so clearly that it’s impossible not to warm to them. If the three supporting characters remain sketches, the main ones emerge clearly and appealingly. Henley was one of four sisters, and she shows us all the dynamics of their contentious but finally unbreakable relationship.

Owen, semi-audible in early dialogue Saturday night, increased in volume and intensity as the play went on. Barnette lets her character’s selfishness show through quickly and slowly becomes compassionate. Klingman seems lost in her own sheltered world in the beginning but grows up into a more aware young woman. We may smile at outmoded elements in this play, such as telegrams sent to convey urgent news. But the emotional journey of the characters hasn’t dated at all.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Crimes of the Heart’

When: Through Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Sign language-interpreted performance Feb. 3.

Where: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Rd.

Tickets: $27.

Details: 704-372-1000 or theatrecharlotte.org

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