Shakespeare has his Arcadia. Chekhov has the Russian countryside. And in contemporary America, we have the South, our great repository of outsized passions and broken dreams. In Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, three sisters struggle with the legacy of their mother’s suicide and the more immediate dilemma of what to do about manslaughter charges facing the youngest of them, Rebecca “Babe” Botrelle (Tasha Ames), who has just shot her husband in the stomach. In Rubicon’s sparkling new production of this modern classic, just about everything works. Director James O’Neil clearly knows both what a good play this is—it’s one of the 1970s’ most enduring “Southern gothics”—and what a marvelous cast he has. As the wild sister, Meg, Faline England is the standout, but everyone here contributes effectively to an enthralling evening of tragicomedy. Kara Revel excels in the key role of Lenny, the oldest McGrath sister and the character most responsible for holding the show’s three acts together. Tina Van Berckelaer creates the necessary havoc as the irritating cousin Chick “The Stick” Boyle, and the show’s male actors—Ross Hellwig as the young attorney Barnette Lloyd and Jason Chanos as Doc Porter—give these agitated women the solid base they need to spring into full dramatic action.
As for the play, it has aged quite well. Some of the more extravagant details, such as Babe’s sexual dalliance with a 15-year-old boy, have taken on darker connotations than playwright Henley may have anticipated in this hyper-vigilant age. Still, the core conflict between the healthy impulses of the McGrath sisters toward life and love and the lingering constraints of their culture, as represented by an ailing grandfather and a judgmental small town, remains potent. The play’s greatest strengths remain the opportunities it affords for the actresses to explore a wide range of physical performances. As Babe, Ames exudes the innocent sensuality of long-limbed youth and makes a powerful focal point for the McGrath family’s concern. But it is England’s Meg who sets the little world of Hazelhurst, Mississippi, spinning. Home from Hollywood, where her promising singing career has evaporated in the California sunshine, Meg fills the glorious set (created by longtime Rubicon collaborator Thomas S. Giamario) with laughter and tears, embodying the irrepressible spirit of these women in her every exaggeration, manipulation, and outright lie until the audience’s last defense against her charm is gone.