As we begin to look ahead to the winter holiday season, the thoughts of many turn not so much to nostalgia as to dread in contemplation of the psychic minefield of the annual family reunion. Was the dysfunctional family always more the rule than the exception in America, one wonders, or is it a byproduct of modern society? Blame it on Freud or Friedan or whomever you will, but it’s undeniable that we can thank strife among blood relations through the ages for supplying a steady stream of inspiration for great works of theatre, from Antigone to King Lear to the modern stage.
Perhaps the richest contemporary motherlode of familial angst is the Southern Gothic school of literature, wherein all the kinfolk seem to have skeletons of one sort or another hanging in their closets. It seems like we all have our horror stories to tell about our crazy relatives, but few of us have hit that nadir of family reunions that forms the dramatic center of Beth Henley’s 1978 tragicomic masterpiece Crimes of the Heart. In the play, the eccentric sisters McGrath gather in the kitchen of their family home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to figure out what to do about the fact that youngest sister Babe has just shot her abusive husband. They fight, struggle, laugh and cry their way through the day and, in the end, discover that love among sisters can overcome any calamity.
Crimes of the Heart debuted in 1979 at the annual New American Plays Festival put on by the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, with Kathy Bates in the original cast. It then went on to become a huge hit on Broadway in 1981, running for 535 performances and winning the 1981 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1982 Theatre World Award. That production also snagged four Tony nominations, including Best Play and Best Featured Actress nods for both Mary Beth Hurt and Mia Dillon. Henley copped a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination when she tailored her play to the screen; the highly successful 1986 film version was directed by Bruce Beresford.
At SUNY-New Paltz this month, a new production is running under the auspices of the Department of Theatre Arts and the direction of Connie Rotunda. Before coming to New Paltz, Rotunda served on the faculty at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.
The SUNY student cast consists of Brittany Martel as spinster eldest sister Lenny McGrath; Emma Schunk as boy-crazy middle sister Meg McGrath; Jamie Kracht as the triggerwoman Babe Botrelle; Jessica Contino as cousin Chick Boyle; Marco Dasilva as Meg’s old boyfriend Doc Porter; and Robert Gagnon as Babe’s lawyer, Barnette Lloyd. Check it out, and thank your lucky stars that this wacked-out family that bonds over a husband-shooting is not your own. It truly could be worse.
Performances of Crimes of the Heart at Parker Theatre on the SUNY-New Paltz campus will continue on October 18, 19 and 20 at 8 p.m. and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on October 21. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting www.newpaltz.edu/theatre or by calling the box office at (845) 257-3880 Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $18, $16 and $10.