Curio Theatre's 'Crimes of the Heart': Three sisters, love, and the future

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(Left to right:) Colleen Hughes, Tessa Kuhn, and Rachel Gluck in the Curio Theatre Company production of “Crimes of the Heart,” through Dec. 9.

Women take center stage this year in the local theater world. Curio Theatre Company is among several exploring drama written by, concerning, or produced/directed by women. Its current offering, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, through Dec. 9, helped begin an era of drama exploring that world.

With its wacky, precarious, and headlong sisters, Lenny, Meg, and Babe, Crimes brought onstage and updated the batty Southern family tragicomedy. This play all but invented the theme of “sister love.” First performed in 1979, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has had repeated success on Broadway.

All good reasons to see this production, an imperfect but worthy account. Crimes is a delicately orchestrated piece of sustained craziness, disaster and hilarity always either happening or threatening, interwoven entrances and exits of characters and stories. That delicate orchestration makes Crimes a challenging play to do well. Gay Carducci has the right rhythm going: Each character (especially wonderful Lesley Berkowitz as brassy, toxic cousin Chick) comes on wrapped in a cloud of his/her whole selfish business.

But, generally, in Curio’s Act 1, there’s a momentum issue. Rachel Gluck plays lonely Lenny, Colleen Hughes plays Meg, and Tessa Kuhn plays Babe. The three don’t find their footing, in terms of timing and connection, until the second act (partly because Act 2, as written, is better). Gluck is funny as she tries to throw herself a birthday party, Hughes believable as a singer who doesn’t sing. Something about the interaction between these two, though, doesn’t spark as it should. And some stage business needs pointing up. The audience completely missed Meg’s famous business with a box of chocolates, for example, which can and should bring down a house.

Momentum picks up with Kuhn’s entrance as Babe. Regretful, longing, murderous, she’s the life force, also the element of destruction and hysteria, and the other sisters handle her with equal protectiveness and exasperation. Crazy stuff swirls, mismatched reasons and actions, slapstick explosions – hanged cats, kids eating paint, a shooting, a saxophone, a hurricane, a horse struck by lightning, ornery ovaries, a phone stuck in a fridge.

In this play of lives hanging by a thread, Act 1 ends with “I’m hopin’.”  Nobody has much reason for hope; everyone’s looking hard for one. It’s a comedy of selfishness wrestling with equal and opposite love. That box of chocolate cremes, for example. Meg wonders whether she could sacrifice another family’s happiness for the sake of her own: Yup, she could. One sister is so enthralled by a man on the phone that she lets another sister sneak off carrying, oh my God, a rope. The two men in the play – Harry Slack as the laconic “Doc” and Chase Byrd as lovelorn lawyer Barnette, both great – are clueless failures but also key players, if they only knew.

In the second act,  the Curio cast discovers the manic tension central to Crimes and carries it to the end, where laughter and a fearful future converge. There is a vision – “not forever, just one moment” – of togetherness, but that future, despite all the sister love, is not ours to see.

Crimes of the Heart. Through Dec. 9 at Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue. Tickets: $15-$30. Information: 215-921-8243, curiotheatre.org.