"Crimes of the Heart" Review
Has a family member ever driven you even past the point of mere aggravation? In the Pulitzer Prize winning play Crimes of the Heart, the author, Beth Henley, shows these aggravations at their most severe. Broken up into three acts, the entire play takes place in an ordinary kitchen with multiple entrances and exits. The intricate plot follows the story of three sisters at their emotional brink. The eldest sister, thirty-year-old Lenny MaGrath, is trying desperately to hold together the fragile pieces of her life.
She is forced to take care of a decrepit “Granddaddy” who remains in the hospital for the play. The youngest sister, twenty-four-year-old Babe Botrelle, shoots her husband, Zackery Botrelle, for reasons that she originally keeps hidden from both the audience and her sisters. Then the middle sister, twenty-seven-year-old Meg MaGrath, is brought home from Hollywood by the news of the shooting, and was played by Mary Beth Hurt in the Broadway production. Mia Dillon, who won a Tony award for Best Featured Actress in 1982 in this breakthrough Broadway role, portrayed Babe. In the first off-Broadway production of the show as well as in the Broadway production, the actress Lizbeth McKay, who also starred in productions by the Cleveland Playhouse, plays Lenny.
Henley does an amazing job at focusing on these three sisters’ development, as this shooting strangely brings them together. Each of these sisters is forced to face their own individual obstacles as they rekindle bonds of sisterhood with one another. Faced with many obstacles that she must works to overcome, Lenny reveals new layers of her character. The opening scene of the play only contains two primary characters, Lenny and her cousin, Chick Boyle. Throughout the play, Chick manipulates Lenny into having her call an estranged group of people about Granddaddy’s worsening condition as he has another stroke, and is just a bad friend. While Chick does remember that it is Lenny’s birthday, the only gift that she bestows upon her is a re-wrapped box of cremes.
Chick’s cheapness ultimately drives the three sisters together since it impels Meg and Babe to order, “the very largest cake that they have!” (38). Lenny also overcomes Chick’s manipulations and chases her out of her house with a broom in hand. Then Meg also encourages Lenny to call a long-lost boyfriend, which Babe had originally told her about. While this initially served as an obstacle driving the sisters apart, it inevitably did the opposite and allowed Meg and Lenny to become closer as they rekindle lost bonds. Meg seeks freedom by moving to Hollywood, although she only ends up drive a wedge between herself and her sisters.
It is even mentioned that Granddaddy sent money to Meg in order for her to come home from Hollywood for a family Christmas. However Meg stays in Hollywood, unable to face her Granddaddy’s praise at a singing career that she had put on hold for the past year or so. Meg’s return home creates a clear obstacle with her old boyfriend, Doc Porter, who now has two children and is married to another woman. Half a decade earlier, Meg had left “Doc” after forcing him to wait out a hurricane with her that caused a tree to fall on his leg resulting in a limp. Meg was unable to face Doc then, and she leaves when he is broken in the hospital.
For all this time she has dreaded coming home and facing everything that she left behind. When she finally does, she is relieved that Doc has moved on and that she is happy that he hasn’t been waiting for her all this time. Meg is also forced to face the Granddaddy who adamantly encouraged Meg’s singing career, as well as her two sisters who she has not seen in over five years. At the core of all of these other relationships is the bond between Meg and her mother, who she discovered dead after her suicide. Meg grew up constantly afraid of not being strong or of showing any signs that could suggest weakness.
Although with Babe’s attempt at suicide, Meg must learn to cope with her fear of weakness. Meg also admits to her vulnerability after spending the night with Doc, and says, “…I’m afraid” (98). Babe’s obstacle is perhaps the most complex, since all layers are intricately enmeshed. The clearest obstacle is Babe having to cope with shooting her husband. It is not even that Babe is scared for her husband (quite the opposite in fact), but that Babe is scared of how her actions involve those she cares about most. Towards the end of the play, Zackery’s malicious sister has incriminating pictures of Babe with a young African American boy with whom “…things start[ed] up” (48).
With her abusive husband’s threat of committing her to an insane asylum, Babe frantically tries to find a means to end her life (first trying with a rope and then by the oven’s fumes). She is barely saved by Meg as she brings in an oversized cake that they ordered for Lenny. After going through this, Babe finally can understand why her mother committed suicide alongside of her dying cat, because she did not want to die alone. This brings the sisters undoubtedly closer since they have people who care, whereas their mother didn’t. They have each other. Ultimately the story of these three sisters exhibits how each has committed a “crime of their hearts”, which serves as their obstacle.
Together they work their way through these crimes and become closer throughout the process. When completed in 1978, the play only became famous as their audiences began to recognize this. Another production challenge with this play is that the entirety of it takes place in only one place, which may get a bit repetitive for the audience. The striking symbolism between a game of cards and then the title of the play was, in my opinion, a clever way to keep the audience’s attention. The script itself presents relatable characters that could easily become actual people with many layers beyond what is blatantly apparent.
The play has graced theaters on numerous scales since its creation in 1978, proving just how much people are able to relate to these characters as actual people. For the most part the play is extremely satisfying and entertaining, but then I found that the ending was not anything other than expected. I also found the ending a bit abrupt and that it did not fully meet my expectations. However, this drama demands raw emotion as it draws it out from both the audience and these sisters. As I read through the script, it becomes inevitable that you are going to get pulled into this “classic” telling of love and the bonds of your own family. Personally, I found that I connected most to Meg or Babe over Lenny.
I could easily relate to Meg’s desire to escape to something exciting and unknown, since I have always seen myself traveling to every inch of the world after I get out of high school. As the story continued into later acts, I began to cheer on Lenny as the audience begins to see new sides of her suppressed personality. The play itself is heavy, and is rooted in many relatable circumstances. It encouraged me as a reader to become more interested into the plot, especially as Henley reveals funny undertones like Babe shooting Zackery simply cause she did not like his looks. It is these happy little moments that allow the entire mood of the play to lighten from deep themes, adding a cheery overtone that I like. My favorite of these moments is how Lenny sends Chick running for cover as she chases her out of the house.
It made me unreasonably happy to see Chick, who originally bosses Lenny around and insults her family right in front of her, being told off by Lenny. Throughout the piece I was constantly surprised by the dramatic changes, which all play on the audience’s emotions and does not rely on the setting. The focus on emotions allows me to relate to all of the key characters, and to root for even innocent Babe to stand up for herself and shoot her husband. Henley’s genius as a writer is her ability to make the audience feel sorry for a shooter in a crime and feel embarrassed for Meg’s revelation of Lenny’s lack of relationships.