by Brad Quinn
Cedar Rapids - A few notes to begin this review. I was in a production of Crimes of the Heart when ICCT did the show several years ago, playing the role of Doc. In fact I believe if you look far enough back in this blog, you’ll find an article about it (though oddly enough, not a review of that show). I had a great experience with that show, and I will try not to let it color my review.
Also, this was the first time I had visited TCR since they moved back into their old home. What I found was a state of the art theater facility that kind of made me turn green with envy. If some our local Iowa City theaters had half the resources that TCR enjoys, we would consider ourselves truly blessed. So I will also try not to let my jealousy of their fantastic home color my review.
As with most productions, the first thing you see when you walk in the theater is the set. And without a doubt, this was a very well done set. The entire play is contained within this one set, a kitchen in an old house. This is a fine choice by the author, because this play is about family and their relationship to each other more than anything else. The kitchen always seems to be the heart of a family, the place where people tend to gather and talk. This kitchen was done in such a way that it really suggested the kind of old family home you would imagine you’d find in a small southern town. Glass cupboards, knickknacks, vinyl floor tiling, and a sink that actually worked! You could really imagine what the rest of the house looked like; it'd be the same sort of home your grandparents lived in when you where a kid.
I did think the set was actually a bit too large. This is not an action packed play, and there was too much area for the actors to use. I thought a slightly smaller set would have given the play a more intimate feeling. And I am not quite sure about the choice of having a small flight of stairs down from the “back door” which presumably led out onto a porch…I’ve never seen a house with a sunken kitchen before. It seemed strange, but otherwise the set was ideal for the show.
The play itself is two days in the life of the Magrath sisters, three 20-something women who are each dealing with some major life issues. As the play opens we meet Lenny, the oldest sister and the glue which holds the family together, played by Angie Toomsen. She is having a birthday, and she is by herself. The director chose to use some opening music for this scene which I found a bit unnecessary. Rather than let the audience slowly clue in to the fact that Lenny is lonely and sad and having a birthday, the lyrics sort of hammer that home to you right away.
Ms. Toomsen delivers a strong performance as Lenny, possibly the best out of the ensemble, although that would be hard to say for sure as the entire cast was very good. TCR veteran Sarah Jarmon played the middle sister Meg and even though she was actually quite ill that night, still managed to inject Meg with the right amount of energy and vivaciousness. The youngest sister, Babe, was played by Katy Slaven, the only one of three which I had not had the pleasure of seeing perform before. Babe is a tough role, because she has to be able to maintain a sort of youthful innocence and keep the audience’s sympathy even while revealing the dirtiest of laundry. Ms. Slaven does an admirable job at this, easily allowing the audience to believe that Babe was the beautiful, beloved, and sheltered baby of the family.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by three secondary characters: Barnette Lloyd, played by Justin Braden, Chick Boyle, played by Clare Duffy, and Doc Porter played by Alex Williams. Barnette is Babe’s lawyer and potential suitor. Mr. Braden was very enjoyable to watch, he has an infectious smile and made Barnette a very likeable character. I did, however, not really feel the chemistry that should have been there between him and Babe. Mr. Williams did a great job as Doc, Meg’s old lover, who has a small part but can be very challenging not to portray as a caricature. Ms. Duffy was wonderful as Chick, the cousin of the three sisters. Chick is sort of an antagonist figure in the play, and it would be easy to go overboard with that, but her performance made Chick seem like a real person.
Still, the play is really about the three sisters and their relationships with each other which, no matter how strained they get, are always held together by love. As I said before, this is not an action packed show. It mainly unfolds through simple conversation. In fact, especially at the beginning of the show, it can drag a bit. Which is not to say there are not some pretty comedic moments; however it sometimes seemed like they left some potential laughs on the table. I’m not sure if it was a choice not to accentuate the comedy in the script, but I did get the idea that maybe the actors hadn’t really considered the fact that the audience would be laughing at some points. At the very beginning of the show there is a scene where Chick struggles to put on a very small pair of pantyhose which is very silly and funny and had the audience laughing out loud. Unfortunately, rather than hold for the laughter, the actors kept talking and I heard many people complain about the fact they missed a lot of dialogue because of it.
Projection was occasionally an issue for some actors. I sat in the back of the house and had no trouble hearing, but I could see how some people, especially older people, might have had a hard time understanding the dialogue. I also thought that some of the staging could have been better. A lot of time was spent by the actors facing each other, rather than the audience. It was often very difficult to see their faces, especially since Ms. Slaven’s hair was practically a curtain which hid the side of her face when she wasn’t facing outwards. Ms. Jarmon also had an issue with her hair, with long bangs that hid and shadowed her eyes, losing some of her expression.
This was further exasperated by the lighting, which tended to be a bit too dim. There were a few areas, especially on the right side of the stage, which had some dark zones. When the actors stood there, it was very difficult to see their expressions.
Other than those issues, though, this was a very solid production. I don’t think anybody left the theater disappointed. As always, the main success of a show relies on the performances of the actors, and these were fine performances indeed. If you are in the mood for some plain old-fashioned character driven theater, then you’d be advised to check out Crimes of the Heart.