GLOUCESTER — The Magrath sisters are having a really bad day. As “Crimes of the Heart” opens, Lenny is desperately wishing herself a happy birthday, Meg has just returned from a failed music career in California, and Babe has just been bailed out of jail after shooting her husband.
The sisters’ unexpected reunion in their little hometown of Hazlehurst, Miss., is bizarre, funny, and tragic, but the focus of Beth Henley’s play — which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and was adapted into a 1986 film starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek — is the relationships among these three high-strung women. Director Carmel O’Reilly has cast a strong trio to play them, but the tone of the production, at Gloucester Stage Company, is uneven.
Liz Hayes is oldest sister Lenny, who, at 30, feels her life is over. The reliable anchor of the family, she has remained in Hazlehurst to care for Old Granddaddy, the patriarch who raised the sisters after their mother committed suicide. But Lenny’s sense of life’s limitations has led her to break off a relationship before she could be rejected for being unable to bear children. Hayes infuses Lenny with jangly nerves as she endures the insults and demands of her busybody cousin Chick (Lenni Kmiec) and resents the freedom she believes her sisters have enjoyed.
McCaela Donovan is Meg, the footloose sister who abandoned her boyfriend Doc (Liam McNeill) after he was injured in a hurricane. Although she headed to California to pursue a singing career, she admits that not only did she lose her voice; she also lost her mind, ending up in a psychiatric ward before going to work in a dog food factory. Donovan dominates the stage, giving Meg a fitting self-absorbed bluster tinged with world-weariness.
Melody Madarasz is Babe, the youngest of the Magrath sisters, who married the town’s popular, wealthy lawyer-politician only to have her marriage disintegrate into abuse and loneliness. She shot him, she says, because she didn’t like his looks, and she made a pitcher of lemonade while her husband lay bleeding on the floor. But Madarasz has a childlike innocence that makes Babe believable. When a young lawyer (Will Keary) sacrifices his personal vendetta against Babe’s husband in order to save her, Madarasz makes us feel the pleasure of a woman who is surprised by the depth of a man’s feelings for her.
Even as we laugh at the petty sibling arguments in Henley’s dark comedy, the playwright sketches a family history that has left these sisters with deep emotional scars. The specter of their mother’s suicide looms large. But as each of the sisters confronts her own particular crimes of the heart, O’Reilly allows the production to become an emotional roller coaster ride rather than a deeply felt story of the ties, and the wounds, that bind.