L to R: Emilie Bracchitta, Katie Halstensgard, DeAnna Gregory. Photo credit: Escobar Photography , LLC
BY SANDY STAGGS
Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” “really is a comedy.”
Katie Halstensgard and her castmates had to continually remind themselves with this mantra during rehearsals of the Mill Town Players’ latest production, despite that swings the pendulum of tragedy, drama and sharp one-liners that makes palatable some rather serious subject matters: suicide, mental illness, adultery and even a botched attempted murder.
This 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning southern gothic modern classic is set in rural Mississippi as three adult sisters face their skeletons-in-the-cellar, proverbial rivalries, and the pending demise of their grandfather who raised them after their mother committed suicide, hanging the family cat alongside her and making the National Enquirer.
As the lights go up on scenic designer’s Rick Connor’s meticulously-crafted and dressed county estate, Halstensgard’s dowdy wallflower Lenny is pathetically trying to light a candle in a cookie for her 30th birthday wish. Poor Lenny is the only Magrath sister who hasn’t fled the family home, eschewing any suitors (not that they have been many aside from a fellow in Memphis she met through a Lonely Hearts Club) to care for their stroke-stricken old Granddaddy.
But when youngest and prettiest sister Babe (Emilie Bracchitta) shoots her lawyer/politician husband Zachary because she “didn’t like his looks,” free-spirited Meg (played by an ebullient (DeAnna Gregory), arrives (by bus) from Hollywood to help save her sister from a prison term.
Jay Briggs, former MTP education coordinator who now works at The Warehouse Theatre, directs this dark comedy that unfurls like a rose-scented onion, these strong Southern women who are deeply flawed – even mentally disturbed – as we discover their committed crimes of the heart.
Set mostly in the slightly-worn kitchen (replete with a beautiful farm sink a gas range), Lenny’s 20-year-old horse was just struck dead by lightning and she has a shrunken ovary rendering her infertile and emotionally insecure about the prospect of ever landing a husband.
Babe has an affair with a 15-year-old African-American kid and is the object of affection of her nerdy young defense attorney Barnette Lloyd (a solid nuanced study by Kyle Thompson). And it’s a kick watching Bracchitta stomping on those southern pecans.
Meg had a nervous breakdown and works at dogfood company after her singing career crashed and burned in California, though she tells Granddaddy she has “small leading role” in Hollywood picture coming and upcoming guest spot on Johnny Carson. And she unexpectedly rekindles an old flame, Doc Porter (MTP regular Aaron Pennington) who she had abandoned in Biloxi after hurricane Camille left him lame. Pennington does wonders with this thinly-drawn part that was fleshed out more for playwright/actor Sam Shepard in the 1986 film version.
This acting trio has convincing chemistry as sisters that have spent their entire lives together. And though, Bracchitta and Gregory are younger in life experience than their characters, they spiritedly capture Meg’s steel magnolia fragility and Babe’s stoned-face naiveté, respectively.
And Halstensgard, MTP production manager and director of the upcoming youth production of “Seussical Jr.” in February, basks in the lucid desperation and and nervous Nellie tics of Lenny and she aces her final “sweeping” confrontation with Chick in hilarious fashion as Lenny claims her path to liberation.
And there is one more standout performance that deserves applause: the irrepressible Mary Katherine Sosebee as the nosy, loquacious cousin next door, Chick. Condescending to a fault and on a mission to save the family name after the scandal, her Chick flutters about the set with much needed comic relief, and a hilarious scene in which she struggles to changes her two-sizes-too-small pantyhose right on stage, claiming they are “skimping on the nylons.”
Costumes for “Crimes of the Heart” are by Sissy Beck, lighting design is by Genesis Garza and Tiffany Bunch is stage manager.
“Crimes of the Heart” continues Thursdays-Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby Street in Pelzer. Tickets are only $12, with discounts for seniors, military, and students, and can be purchased online at http://www.milltownplayers.org, by calling (864)947-8000, or at the door.