The point of Crimes of the Heart, Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer-prize winning comedy, is that despite all their flaws and quirks, you come to love the triumvirate of sisters at the center of the action: Stunted, long-suffering Lennie (Jennifer Dundas), beautiful, thoughtless femme fatale Meg (Sarah Paulson), and brave, spunky Babe (Lily Rabe). And it's easy to see that that's where first-time director Kathleen Turner begins: Like so many fans of the play and the 1986 movie, strange Southern women with their complex interrelationships, and her production pays homage to the multiple ties and peculiar history that bind them together. The problem is, this production isn't funny - and that's because it begins where it should end.
After all, when we're introduced to the sisters, poor Lennie is being badgered by her bitchy cousin Chick (an appropriately strident Jessica Stone), Meg is presented as the tramp responsible for crippling their kindly, hunky neighbor Doc (Patch Darragh) both emotionally and physically, and daffy Babe has just shot her husband for no apparent reason. Likeable? Not necessarily. Hysterical? On many levels - but the more so if their flaws and foibles are allowed to unfold in all their craziness, and the audience's understanding, like that of the sisters themselves, grows, gradually.
In this production, however, almost everyone's too adorable from the start - and we seem to be expected to take them all seriously from the start. Dundas manages to eke some humor out of her fussbudget role initially, but soon seems little more than an object of pity. While Paulson's weary prettiness rings true for Meg, she doesn't manage to project her charisma or her conflicts until the play's end. As for Rabe, her floaty, dreamy-eyed Babe is too vague and daffy for a girl with her list of felonious accomplishments: When her husband threatens to have her committed, the audience has to wonder just how sane she is.
Nonetheless, Henley's play is still a serviceable vehicle and makes for a watchable, even if overly earnest, evening. And the cast does manage, at times, to capture the family cohesion, born of shared tragedies and triumphs, that has kept them close, no matter how violently they disagree or how far apart they move. And that love is still moving - when Lennie finally gets her due - from her sister's and her life - it's impossible not to feel manipulated, but it's just as hard not to be happy for her.