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In Lukewarm Blood: Drama And Poignancy In No Refund Theater’s ‘Crimes Of The Heart’

It’s a truism you’re more or less guaranteed to hear if you ever decide to enroll in a screenwriting course: The most basic play is people sitting at a table and talking.

And like most somewhat boring first-day-of-class bromides, this turns out to be spot-on. “Crimes of the Heart,” directed by the Penn State senior team of Jessie Demmert and Brittany Mancha, is literary drama, and as such, the play adheres to such classroom rules. The play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama the year it was first performed, it has been made into a movie, and the characters speak with perfectly human imperfection. In fact, this play’s biggest problem — perhaps its only problem — lies in its adherence to the Academy’s Rules of Playwriting.

To summarize as quickly as I’m able, “Crimes of the Heart” tells the story of a dysfunctional Southern family. Lenny and Babe Magrath live in Hazelhurst, Missouri, with the former working as a caretaker for the grandfather who raised the sisters following their mother’s suicide, and the latter living a quiet life married to a state senator. Meg Magrath lives in California, pursuing a singing career. All is fine and dandy.

Except, of course, it isn’t all fine and dandy (there’d be no play if it were), and we discover quickly that Lenny’s depressed, lonely, and trapped, that Meg is a hard-living, narcissistic fraud, and that Beth has shot — not quite killing — her husband. Several things are rotten in the state of Missouri, and they all begin to coalesce around the kitchen table when the sisters are reunited by the almost-murder.

That table’s role as dramatic focal point is this play’s principle strength, and the Mancha-Demmert team brilliantly accents the homegrown drama of “Crimes” with an almost Rockwellian set design of the suburban Southern home. Characters flit in and out of the kitchen, bringing to that table the old-school Americana sense that life, despite the outside world’s intrusions, is chiefly a family affair.

And due to the fundamental intimacy of that set design, this production of “Crimes” manages to subtly but powerfully cast that most important of theatrical spells: the feeling that you’re right there in the home with the characters onstage. Despite its comparative shabbiness, Forum actually lends itself to this play, drawing the audience down and into the action.

As “Crimes of the Heart” progresses, we learn of the emotional baggage responsible for the inter-sister strife driving the play. We don’t ever leave the Magrath home, but we do take several emotional journeys through the sisters’ lives. Inevitably, audiences will feel a certain degree of identification, which is the point. Family, “Crimes” asserts, does not need to be functional to be loving; rather, it is the bonds of family that are necessary to overcome human frailty.

You’ll laugh at this play, you’ll feel moved by this play, and you’ll be impressed by this play. As always, NRT’s actors nail it (with the occasional accent-slippage from Southern to Brooklyn), and once again, I found myself deeply impressed by the skill with which these parts are played. The Magrath sisters dominate the show, of course (it’s about them, after all), but cousin Margaret — the Magrath’s socialite cousin and caricature of hostile Southern hospitality — is an especially delightful presence, played with full obnoxious force.

No Refund Theater has brought to life a genuinely compelling story with their usual talent and panache. “Crimes” might be a little just-so for this reviewer’s taste, but who doesn’t love a just-so story every now and again? You can catch this entertaining, thoughtful performance at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 28 through Saturday, March 30 in 111 Forum. You might not be a Magrath, but thanks to the dedication of the directors and cast, you will feel like one come the final curtain call.

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About the Author

Steve Schneible

Recovering Bethlehem, PA native. English & Psych student, PSU SHC class of 2021. Paterno Fellow. Narcissism Hour Showrunner. Kalliope Fiction Coordinator. Earnest and usually good-natured milquetoast. Baby Onward State contributor. Email: [email protected] Moderately amusing Twitter account: @steve_schneibs

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