Review: Crimes Of The Heart (Old Fitz Theatre)

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

Theatre review
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.

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5 Questions with Amanda McGregor and Laura Pike

Amanda McGregor

Laura Pike: You are eldest of three girls but Meg is the middle sister. What have you noticed about the middle sister syndrome?
Amand McGregor: Being in the middle feels like it encourages more rebellion. I know as the eldest sister – the first one off the block – I was more disciplined by my parents than my younger sisters were. Everyone knows that by the third kid, parents are more lax, like “Yeah whatever – have ice cream for dinner! Stay out all night long! We cool! You do you!” But the eldest often ends up pretty responsible and measured. I’m generalising, but it’s pretty much on point for me and my sisters, and I think for the McGraths too. Meg certainly is not responsible or measured, she lives in the moment.

Even though I’m the eldest, I certainly went through my wild phases. Meg went straight for the kill and started being a renegade from a young age, probably to differentiate herself from the very well-behaved Lenny – but also in order to mask the pain of her childhood.

Meg is a singer – have you had any aspirations about being a singer?
100% yes. At 13 I sang a TJ Dennis song with a live band at the Boyup Brook Country Music Festival. I wore black jeans and a black tassel midriff top and I felt so cool and like I was definitely a famous country music star. I still have a secret desire to sing country all day every day and be the female Willie Nelson.

Crimes Of The Heart deals with ghosts from the past? Do you have any?
I think we all do. So short answer yes, and the long answer would spill out of me with the right about of bourbon. There are certain relationships in my life where oceans lie between me and someone else because of pain and heartache. The person exists purely as a memory – they’re a ghost. So I can empathise with Meg in that sense. Everyone’s past haunts them from time to time, and I think Meg’s past is painfully unresolved.

What the wildest adventure you’ve ever had?
Probably a night in Hollywood that involved surprise drug deals, Steel Panther, a supposed member of the ‘Bra Boys, and a beautiful pit bull named Brooklyn.

Who do you get as your doppelgänger?
Sarah Jessica Parker when my hair is blonde-ish (a woman literally took a photo once not just OF me, but WITH me because “aw mate you look like that chick from Sex And The City!” It was on the Gold Coast. It was weird. I’m not sure why I posed for the photo). Then when my hair is dark, Winona Ryder, which makes all my dreams come true. I want to be Winona, forever. I think I’ll get a tattoo of her face.

Laura Pike

Amanda McGregor: What’s the most frustrating quality about Lenny that you can relate to?
Laura Pike: Oh my gosh I’ve had SO many cringe moments during rehearsal, where other cast have gone “Oh poor Lenny” and I’ve thought THAT’S ME! Lenny has this beautiful quality, where she takes care of everyone. She has a desperate need to bring people together, free them of their pain and look after others. But in doing so, she leaves herself last. This is definitely something I do and am working on strengthening. Having a healthy amount of selfishness and recognising when I need to fill up my own cup because the more I can do that, the more I can tip over into others cups.

Do you have any phobias?
YES! Waves. I grew up in PNG and we lived right on the water, but I’m so scared of waves. It didn’t help living in Bondi either. I’m especially scared of the part when the wave breaks or starts to barrel. It seems so menacing to me and people always say “you’ve just got to dive under it” but it freaks me out. And I’ve dreamt of tsunamis. I think I need to get onto this!

What are the differences between sisterhood in Mississippi 1974 and sisterhood in Sydney 2017?
Sisterhood is sisterhood, no matter what period of time or place. The relationship between sisters is universal. You grow up together, knowing each other’s vulnerabilities, strengths, traits and personality… oh and triggers. Boy do you know each other’s triggers! The bond between sisters is incredibly special. To be in the company of someone you deeply love and knowing in the pit of your being that you’d do ANYTHING for that person if they needed it. Luckily, some things have changed since the 1970s in regards to feminism and women’s rights. One of the biggest victories in Women’s Rights in the US came in 1972 when Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment. However Mississippi was the ONLY state legislature that didn’t vote on the amendment. So when Crimes Of The Heart was set (1974) Women’s Rights hadn’t reached the South. Therefore my character Lenny (in dealing with her younger sister Babe’s marriage) is still of that old school mentality; “Don’t interfere; what goes on between and husband and wife is their own business”. Even the simple act of a woman calling a man was taboo. Today, women are more empowered to stand up for each other – I would even go so far as to say there is more of a global sisterhood of support, trust and love.

Lenny is the eldest of 3, you are the youngest of 3. What’s the worse thing your older sisters have done to you?
I also grew up in Cairns in a beautiful ‘Queenslander’ with lattice going all the way around our house. When I was a little one, I always needed to go to the loo in the middle of the night. My eldest sister came to me one day and commented on how brave I was taking such a risk. “What do you mean?” I pleaded and without blinking, she told me about the murderer that used to sit with his gun in the lattice, waiting for me each night. Bed wetting anyone?

What animal could you take down in a fight?
A pig. If it was in their pen. Filled with mud not poo. I snort when I laugh really loudly, so at least I’d fit in!

Amanda McGregor and Laura Pike can be seen in Crimes Of The Heart by Beth Henley.
Dates: 15 March – 8 April, 2017
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre