One of the great things about Beth Henley’s 1981 Pulitzer-winning “Crimes of the Heart” is that it’s equal parts funny and dark, a comedy notable for its look into the psyches of three tiny-town Mississippi sisters who are having, as one of them says, a very bad day. But you wouldn’t know it was funny — or a comedy at all — in the Curio Theatre Company production now running in its West Philadelphia home.
In fact, there wasn’t a single audience guffaw the night I saw it this past weekend. Chalk it up to a bad night. Stuck with a serious take on a goofy plot, director Gay Carducci turns a meaty show into a drama suited to daytime TV. And it’s not all her doing — she’s dealing with an uneven cast. Some of the actors inhabit their parts, and others seem merely to act. The result is a show that has the wrong tone — at least on Friday evening, it did — and is sometimes lackluster, particularly in its first half. (The original is in three acts. Here, it’s performed as two.)
One of the early signs that no one’s paying attention is Harry Slack’s portrayal of Doc, a local guy ditched by one of the sisters after she persuaded him to stay with her inside a dangerous building during a hurricane. The roof fell, permanently damaging his leg. Slack, however, walks onto the stage as if he’s come straight from an audition for “Dancing with the Stars.” No limp, no sign of a back-story.
So forgive me if I sat there thinking “huh?” through this and through the production in general. (One actress lighting cigarettes but failing ever to take even a quarter-drag on them didn’t help things. When she’s chided for smoking too much, I thought, why?)
Henley’s comedy doesn’t come from zingers in the script, it comes from the plot itself and the way it unfolds in the hands of the three sisters. One sister (played by Rachel Gluck) lives a lonely life in the family house, and feels trapped because she has what she calls a shrunken ovary. Another (Tessa Kuhn) has just shot her husband because “I didn’t like his looks.” The third (Colleen Hughes) is just back in town from a West Coast singing career that’s a bust. It really is a bad day.
The young lawyer (Chase Byrd) hired to defend the shooting sister seems more interested in settling a vendetta against her wounded husband than he is in defending her. A higher-than-thou first cousin (Lesley Berkowitz) comes around to dish out big helpings of snark. And Old Granddaddy, the family scion, fades away in a home somewhere nearby. But wait — there‘s more: A beloved horse named Billy Boy is dead, struck by lightning.
You may have seen the star-studded 1986 movie, and the play’s been around long enough to be pretty well known, both for the laughs it engenders and for touching scenes that also come naturally in the plot. Those moments — the serious ones — are the best in Curio’s production, which clearly aims to plumb them for what they’re worth. They’d be better earned if the humor in the rest of the show had led us to them.
“Crimes of the Heart,” produced by Curio Theatre Company, runs through Dec. 9 at Curio’s home space in the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, 4740 Baltimore Avenue. 215-921-8243. www.curiotheatre.org.