Review - Crimes of the Heart

Crystal Bernard photo

From: Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), 11/5/1999
By: Julio Martinez Special to the Daily News

Acclaimed television producer/writer/director Garry Marshall has finally launched the first full season of plays at his little jewel box of a theater in Toluca Lake with a stellar production of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/drama ``Crimes of the Heart,'' featuring TV pros Faith Ford (``Murphy Brown''), Crystal Bernard (``Wings'') and Morgan Fairchild (``Falcon Crest'').

If the rest of the 1999/2000 season fulfills the promise of Marshall's debut outing, the Falcon will be a dynamic addition to L.A.'s ever-growing live theater community.

Despite its Pulitzer credentials and subsequent Academy Award nomination (Henley's screen adaptation), ``Crimes of the Heart'' is a troublesome, weakly plotted work that relies totally on the quirkiness of its characters to sustain dramatic interest.

Marshall astutely guides his accomplished six-member ensemble through every facet of each colorful character's motivation and action.

The result is a rip-roaring yet endearing look at three young women who learn to accept their dubious history and to revel in their unique bond.

Set in rural 1974 Mississippi, the play focuses on the trials and tribulations of the 20-something McGrath sisters: emotionally repressed Lenny (Ford), simple-minded Babe (Bernard) and bitter, self-involved Meg (Stephanie Niznik), who has been trying to launch a singing career in Hollywood.

Complicating their lives is nemesis and next-door neighbor, cousin Chick Boyle (Fairchild) who resents their very existence.

On the occasion of Lenny's 30th birthday, Babe is arrested for attempted murder of her abusive husband, prompting the return of Meg, who immediately sets her sights on now-married former beau, Doc (Paul Satterfield), whom she jilted years earlier.

The centerpiece of this production is Bernard's ingenious, flat-out hilarious portrayal of open-hearted but reality-challenged Babe. With the unencumbered, physical and emotional enthusiasm of a 5-year-old, Bernard's Babe converses in a captivating flow of verbal and gesticulator leaps and bounds that are always perfectly in sync with the rest of the ensemble.

She is absolutely plausible when she states innocently that she shot her husband ``because I didn't like his looks.''

Complementing Babe's off-the-wall zaniness are Ford's dead-on portrayal of ever-harried Lenny and Niznik, whose Meg exudes a fascinating balance of sensuality, insecurity, deep affection and raging narcissism.

This trio of disparate personalities achieve such an intuitive level of interaction it is easy to believe they have been dependent upon one another all their lives.

Also lending solid support are Fairchild's boisterous outing as the forever-complaining Chick, Satterfield's confused but still-smitten Doc, and Jake Wall's effective portrayal as Barnette Lloyd, the effusive, bantam rooster of a lawyer who is absolutely positive he can keep Babe from going to jail.

The immaculate designs of Akeime Mitterlehner (set), Dan Weingarten (lighting), Steve Goodie (sound) and Karyl Newman (costumes) do much to enhance the production's outstanding sense of time and space.