Review: Crimes of the Heart at The Arts Theatre, Adelaide

Review By Lisa Lanzi


Fringe and Festival season may have passed but Adelaide’s artists are definitely not relaxing and audiences are continuing to head out eagerly into the night for live theatre and entertainment. We are aware how fortunate we are in our charmed, Covid-free bubble and people are certainly making the most of it as performances across town continue to sell well.


The Adelaide Repertory Theatre (The Rep) website tells of their fame as the oldest, continuously surviving amateur theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere. From humble beginnings in 1908 in a classroom at the Elder Conservatorium where students met to read and discuss plays, they are now firmly established in their home at The Arts Theatre and continue to present regularly.


Crimes of the Heart, like so many productions, was slated for 2020 but has finally reached the stage this year. Prolific Adelaide director Geoff Brittain is in charge of this production and the astonishing and functional set is designed by Dr Ole Wiebkin, retired University of Adelaide academic. Written by Beth Henley, the play won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for “a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life”.


Set in a small Mississippi town, the play delves into the lives of sisters Lenny, Babe and Meg, gathered once again in their childhood home where Lenny has remained to care for their grandfather. The narrative is a heady mixture of wacky humour and dark tragedy with the kind of juxtapositions that should create dramatic tension to drive the intense narrative and keep the audience riveted. In this production, there are a few settling-in issues with pace and character development that will surely resolve as the season progresses.


Each sister is immersed in their own hellish suffering while also attempting to navigate the complex family dynamics and find perspective on each other’s problems. They unearth grudges, criticize each other, reminisce fondly about some past joys, and attempt to understand their mother's suicide years earlier. There is light-hearted banter, vicious rejoinders and some redemptive understandings reached. The story should wring our emotions and journey us from tears to manic laughter.


In these demanding McGrath sister roles Alison Scharber (Babe, the youngest) and Georgia Stockham (Lenny, the oldest and turning forty) are strong forces on stage. As Meg (middle sister and family escapee with big career aspirations), Cheryl Douglas embodies her character’s mercurial personality but hasn’t quite yet conquered the emotional depths. The scenes where the energetic banter between the threesome touches us most are very affecting, particularly the hysteria and laughter generated by exhaustion and grief around ‘Old Grandpa’s’ lapse into coma.

The supporting roles are all tackled well: Adam Schultz bringing gravitas to lawyer Barnette Lloyd, Steve Marvanek as compassionate Doc Porter, Meg’s abandoned former lover, and Deborah Proeve as gossipy and judgemental cousin Chick. Again, pace was an occasional issue and more detailed attention could be paid to the ways these characters inhabit the sisters’ world. I felt the audience needed to experience deeper connections to these personalities as they orbit the nucleus of the family. The clues are all there through the lens of the carefully crafted text in this dialogue-driven drama.


As an American chronicle of the deep South set in 1974, Crimes of the Heart needs to punch through our Australian sensibilities to impress upon us the depths of the issues it addresses, or indeed glosses over. For instance, the racial and sexual injustices that exist within the story, even in the 70s. It is revealed that Babe McGrath has been having an affair with a fifteen year old African American boy and reactions to this revelation are more about the fact that he is of a different race, not that it is statutory rape. There are also deep issues of domestic abuse, familial oppression and poor mental health. As an audience, we need to travel the rollercoaster of emotion alongside the actors and care deeply about the situations and outcomes.


There are many strengths in this still relevant production and as always, The Adelaide Repertory Theatre is committed to bringing great works to the stage. Please support your local community theatre companies. Our world is richer for their contribution.


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