By Daedalus Howell
STUDIO BE'S STAGING of playwright Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prizewinning Crimes of the Heart is an inspired reclamation of the play from the video store purgatory in which it has languished since its 1986 conversion from stage to screen.
Henley's script is a petri dish of sororal relationships inspected beneath a Southern-made microscope. The three Magrath sisters converge on the 30th birthday of eldest sister Lenny (Sandra Speidel), with the dual homecomings of hellion middle sister Meg (Reagan Vasher)--an itinerant Hollywood actress and dog-food company clerk--and young Babe (Jenirose Friedkin), freshly sprung from a holding cell after shooting her tyrannical husband the senator in the belly.
Over the course of the next few days, the sisters contemplate, confront, and confide to each other with darkly hilarious results culled from such unlikely subjects as their mother's suicide (she takes the cat with her), mental illness, and Lenny's shrunken ovaries.
This is A+ material, and theater veteran Lennie Dean's taut direction finds an excellent path through the play's innumerable possibilities.
Costumed to look like a something out of a 1950s Betty Crocker test kitchen, Sheila Groves brings superb characterization to the role of the Southern-bred nag Chick, an ancillary cousin whose antics irritate and bait the sisters.
The set is a meticulous re-creation of a working kitchen, complete with stocked refrigerator, running water, and a real coffee maker gurgling in the background.
A collaborative effort executed by the entire company, the set optimizes Studio BE's diminutive black-box space: curtains flank a real window out of which Meg exhales cigarette smoke and players and viewers alike share the "front door" (fire codes require the "Exit" sign to remain, only slightly diminishing the effect).
As kid sister Babe, Friedkin is to be applauded for her ability to invest herself fully into Babe's oscillating mental states (more Ophelia than Hamlet), though at times her full-throttle performance is overwhelming.
Friedkin, however, downshifts Babe into a charming vulnerability during her scenes with Barnett Lloyd (Matt Strong), whose 5-inch sideburn chops and cheap suit complement his confident if understated performance as Babe's rookie lawyer. Babe's scenes with older sister Lenny are agreeably tempered by Speidel's adept management of stoicism and warmth, resignation and resolve--effectively conveying the simmering envy sometimes genuine in older sisters.
Vasher is well cast as the wild reprobate Meg, delivering salty quips and comebacks with admirable facility. She cracks pecans with the haphazardly glued heel of her knee-high boot to punctuate such anachronistically Southern reproaches as "married a Yankee?"
Vasher is hilarious without losing Meg's poignancy as a woman whose ambitions have degenerated into lies of success. She shines particularly during a reunion with local yokel Doc Porter (director Dean's playwright husband, Benjamin Dean), who forsakes a life in medicine subsequent to their bungled affair.
Doc's fascination with Vasher's contagiously enthused Meg is completely understandable, and Dean's characterization of the lovelorn schnook makes it hard to resist leaping to the stage and giving him a hug.
Crimes of the Heart plays July 3, 5, and 10-12 at 8 p.m. Studio Be, Lincoln Arts Center (2nd floor), 709 Davis St., Santa Rosa. Tickets are $10. 525-4770.
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From the July 2-9, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.