It’s been a bad couple of days for the Magrath sisters.
Take oldest sister Lenny (Kat Moraros): no one has remembered her 30th birthday except her horrible gossip of a cousin, Chick (Molly Frantzen), and her childhood horse was just struck by lightning. Meg (Casey Turner) returns home from a failed singing career in Los Angeles to endure hometown judgment and what we would now call slut-shaming. And the youngest sister, Babe (Heather Irish), shot her husband yesterday.
So, it’s no good news that brings the sisters back under the same small-town Mississippi roof, in Beth Henley’s classic 1979 dramedy “Crimes of the Heart,” onstage now in a terrific production at Good Theater (under the direction of Brian P. Allen with Allison McCall). In the thick of their legal and other troubles, Meg and Lenny rally around their baby sister. “There are plenty of good reasons to shoot another person,” Meg reassures Lenny. “And I’m sure Babe had one.”
“Crimes of the Heart” is a dark but comic paean to the complex loyalties and betrayals, shared traumas and petty grudges, rages and pleasures of sisterhood. As the sisters navigate Babe’s crime, strategize with their young lawyer Barnette (Thomas Ian Campbell) about damning photos of Babe, and encounter Meg’s old flame Doc (Dalton Kimball), they’re constantly contending with both the present and the past — as well as mental health issues and (readers should be warned) both a family history of suicide and a suicide attempt.
The sororal trinity at the heart of Good Theater’s production is pure gold. Moraros, Turner, and Irish, all formidable young actors in their own rights, do phenomenal work conjuring both individual women and the dynamic, irrepressible organism that is the Sisters Magrath.
As the stoic, responsible oldest, Moraros’ Lenny lets us see both the love that fuels her caretaking and her resentment for long doing most of that caretaking herself. Watch her face as she tries to hold in all her irritation or disappointment, then as she breaks down like a young wounded girl. Watch the faux-restraint and flicker of a bitter smile as she asks who’s eaten a tiny bite out of each of her birthday chocolates; later, watch her revert completely to childhood form as she screams at the culprit — Meg.
Turner’s Meg makes quite an entrance returning home in her short leather skirt, lacy black fishnets, and a teal shirt with shoulder cut-outs (one of Michelle Handley’s great costuming visions). In how she carries herself — her poise, charm, and self-centeredness as natural as breathing — we can still see the teenager who (according to Lenny) always got what she wanted and got away with everything. But Turner also lets us see her self-doubts and bitterness. Shouldn’t she stay in show business, Lenny asks her, and she responds with a sarcastic “Oh, maybe!” — filled with both irritation for Lenny and self-loathing for herself.
And Irish lends Babe a fascinating combination of delicacy and razor toughness, the ethereal and the gonzo. There’s an elemental strangeness in Babe that startles even wild-child Meg. Irish’s Babe carries herself lightly and with mesmerizing grace, but the strength and ferocity in her gaze, and the sudden force of her laughter, are far more powerful than the bourbon Meg swigs.
These three women reunite with great squealing exuberance, but soon enough fall back to childhood habits and resentments. Moraros, Turner, and Irish enact these sisterly complexities with wonderful rapport, great nuance, and supreme comic timing. They let us see the dual petulance and empathy that the intimacy of sisters entails — especially given the shared childhood trauma of their mother’s suicide. These actors make beautifully convincing work of the sisters’ shifting alliances, their polyphony as they shout over and past each other, and their quicksilver slips from irritation to rage to screeching hilarity, then back again.
In one scene, the three sisters are finally getting along and are excited to spend the night playing Hearts, like in the old days. But all that quickly diffuses with a phone call from Doc, as Meg’s sisterly communion melts away like butter on a skillet and she prepares to meet him instead. Moraros lets Lenny’s face fall in such a way that we can see both her hurt and the many, many times she has felt it before.
The show’s three supporting roles are also excellently cast. Kimball gives his Doc a winningly gentle, simple kindness, ruddy and smiling in a plaid shirt and jeans. Campbell, in a powder-blue suit, is understated and funny as the lawyer who is helplessly, blushingly drawn to the charismatic Magrath sisters.
And Frantzen is divine as the vain and self-righteous Chick, preening and dripping with condescending Southern saccharine. Her Chick also serves as a telling counterpoint to the Magrath sisters in terms of Southern social norms: she’s perfectly put together, impeccably dressed, and completely in sync with the small-town culture that all three Magraths struggle with or reject outright.
The Magrath sisters have a lot to work through. But they have their scintillating, messy, utterly unique alliance to help them as they do. Good Theater’s “Crimes” reminds those of us with sisters how lucky we can be, even — and especially — on our worst days.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.