Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2007

By Katie Scarvey
Salisbury Post
It’s no surprise that dysfunctional Southern families are a staple of fiction and drama. In a nutshell, they’re entertaining.
They’re not only entertaining but familiar as well.
“You know these people,” says director Reid Leonard, discussing the characters in “Crimes of the Heart,” which opens July 26 at the Meroney Theatre.
We do know them. We know their quirks, their frailties, their eccentricities. They may be a bit exaggerated, but oh yes, we know them. Maybe we are them.
“I think it was Walker Percy who said the most important element of southern fiction was recognition,” Leonard says. “Everyone seeing the play should recognize the characters, the kitchen, the furniture, the feelings.”
Leonard and his cast of six actors have discovered that the play is surprisingly deep.
“The more we work on it, the better it gets,” he says. “It’s not the sitcom that it might appear to be.”
On the surface, he says, “it seems like the story of a wife who shoots her husband in the stomach buys a saxophone to start a new career and tries to stay out of jail. But there’s a lot more to it.”
The play, he says, is “just good old southern storytelling.”
People who think they know the play because they’ve seen the movie version ó which Leonard calls “one of the worst-cast movies of all time,” should check out the stage version, which is “a million times better,” he says.
“Crimes of the Heart” is the story of the Magrath Sisters. Their father has long since split the scene, and their mother is gone too. She’s hanged herself ó and taken out the pet cat with her.
Oldest sister Lenny (Jerla Gross) is unhappily turning 40 and worried about sinking into unmarried middle age. She’s consigned to taking care of Old Granddaddy ó who’s in the hospital because of “all those blood vessels poppin’ in his head.”
Youngest sister Babe (Frances Bendert) has shot her husband in the stomach and is out on bail. Babe would rather not explain the circumstances to Barnette (Preston Mitchell), the young lawyer hired to defend her ó who happens to have a crush on her.
Middle sister Meg (Debbie Hubbard) is back from the the West Coast after a failed attempt at a singing career and a stint in the mental hospital.
Adding to the mix is the irritating but funny Chick (Jennifer Hubbard), the Magraths’ social-climbing first cousin, and Meg’s old boyfriend Doc Porter (Kent Bernhardt).
The Meroney set exudes so much personality it almost seems like a seventh character. It’s been wonderfully transformed into a kitchen from the early 1970s ó the kind your grandparents might have had.
It looks marvelously authentic. There’s a screen door, of course. A working refrigerator is topped with an old electric fan; in the middle of the stage is a yellow formica table with matching naugahyde chairs. The stove has pressure cooker on top, and there’s even a curtain underneath the double porcelain sink. The floor is painted to look like linoleum tile.
Playwright Beth Henley finished “Crimes of the Heart” in 1978 and submitted it to several regional theatres, with no luck.
Without her knowledge, a friend entered it in the Great American Play Contest at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was named co-winner and was performed in 1979 at the company’s annual festival of New American Plays.
The production was a hit, and in 1981, it was the first play ever to win a Pulitzer Prize before reaching Broadway.
The play will be performed at the Meroney Theatre, 213 S. Main St., at 7:30 p.m., July 26-28, Aug. 1-4; and at 2:30 p.m.,July 29.
The box office opens to members only July 19-20. It opens to the public July 23 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays during the run of the show from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and two hours before each show.
For more information, call 704-633-5471.
Contact Katie Scar vey at 704-797-4270 or