Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 8, 2017
Playwright: Beth Henley
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Caleb Alloway, Rowan Davie, Amanda Mcgregor, Laura Pike, Renae Small, Amy Usherwood
Image by Rupert Reid
It’s not Russia in 1900, but the three sisters in Beth Henley’s Crimes Of The Heart are similarly oppressed and emotionally tortured. Where Chekhov had expressed these pains in more sociopolitical terms, Henley’s story is specific about the patriarchy that these Magrath ladies have to operate under. They are gregarious personalities who fight hard to make lemonade out of an endless supply of lemons, but things never pan out well. They are trapped, by forces that remain invisible to them, and in their minds, they only have themselves to blame.
Completed in 1978, the play is no longer lustrous, but with our refreshed interest in feminism, its themes have again become pertinent. There are dominant men in these women’s lives who wreak havoc, but we never see them. To many women, especially those in decades past, gender inequity is rarely conspicuous. The Magraths do not for one moment realise the cause of their suffering, and like many of us, we take the blame personally, unable to perceive the wider connotations of how we exist, and the deeply problematic contexts by which we go about our daily business. Janine Watson’s direction takes the comedy to delightfully dark and twisted places for many perverse laughs, but the production’s inability to make forceful, the presence of evil fathers and husbands, is a sore point that prevents the drama and poignancy to sufficiently take hold.
The people who do appear on stage though, are effectively presented. All three sisters, Babe, Lenny and Meg are convincing, and very compelling. Renae Small in particular, is fascinating as Babe, with a subtle but wicked sense of humour that gives the show a distinctive flavour of subversiveness. Her ability to make believable the contradictory qualities of a delicate lady in trouble, but free from the torment of guilt, is truly impressive. Laura Pike demonstrates excellent authority over her depictions of emotion in the role of Lenny, and Amanda McGregor’s energetic theatricality as Meg, give Crimes Of The Heart a richness that keeps us invested in how its characters develop.
Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set design is a remarkable achievement that converts an inconvenient space into the Magrath’s evocative American home of mid-twentieth century. Along with Alexander Berlage’s lights, the actors are framed perfectly, in a manner that represents a constant reminder of the women’s unconscious captivity. Our lives are controlled by forces insidious and surreptitious, and how we experience being, will always have elements that are under the manipulation of others. We may never be able to overcome them all, but understanding systems and their machinations, is how we can begin learning to benefit from them, or to dismantle and debase them. The sisters wish for happier days, but without knowing the cause of their agony, they can only leave their hopes to the powers that be, which in this case, remain concealed and malevolent.