Thoughts & Musings

When Shall We Three Meet Again?
Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1978)

© 2017 by Eileen Warburton

For some reason, I have better luck when I work with women.
I guess I have a good sense of sisterhood.
Dolly Parton

How the heaviness of the cruel past lays pressure on the present, twisting it and weighing it down. Spun out into very different destinies by the choices made for them years before, the three McGrath sisters reunite at the family home in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, brought together by the family crisis of Old Granddaddy’s stroke—not to mention, the youngest sister has just shot her husband in the stomach. They are such different personalities, but are all alike in complete isolation, and in the amount of pain they bear and try to ignore. Abandoned by their father in early childhood, they are the daughters of a suicide mother who were raised by their grandparents.

Under the tutelage of their Old Granddaddy, the three sisters have mastered avoidance, beginning with the day of their mother’s burial when the old man takes the little girls out for banana splits for breakfast to cheer them up and they gorge until they are sick to their stomachs. He is the one who chooses each girl’s future. Babe, the youngest, will marry the rich Zachery Botrelle, and “skyrocket right to the heights of Hazelhurst society.” (whether she likes it or not) Meg, wild, selfish, and promiscuous, is encouraged to take her singing talent to Hollywood. As she fails and flails, he buys in to her years of lies and she is afraid to disappoint him. And Lenny, the eldest, is told that she has a “shrunken ovary,” can’t have children, and therefore couldn’t possibly be of any interest to any man. This mean and baseless explanation grooms Lenny to be the old maid sister who becomes Old Granddaddy’s housekeeper and caretaker.

Each sister, trapped in a false defining narrative that she unquestioningly accepts, is thereby doomed to isolation and profound loneliness, where despair is only a little way off. There’s always a wonderfully brave sense of humor to paper over the chasm. But the real healing can only take place when the fragmented family comes back together, sisters supporting sister as they honestly confront their past. The moment arrives as Lenny, on her 30th birthday, contemplates old age and living alone, as Meg arrives from California and admits that she is a drunk reduced to working in a dog food factory, and as Babe faces the consequences of shooting her nasty husband, instead of herself. Reunited, this dysfunctional sister trio do a lot of truth-telling and sharing of memories. The release from their past is approaching with the death of Old Granddad and the disappearance of the identities he imposed on each of them.

The trick to the comic humor of Southern Gothic—that genre of black comedy that plays off the grotesque with alienated characters, aimless violence, and domestic decay—is that the story is actually delivered ironically straight, with unvarnished surface realism, just-as-it-appears. Why, for instance, did Babe shoot her husband? Because she “didn’t like his looks.” Why does she make and drink lemonade immediately afterwards? “I was thirsty,” she replies. Now, of course, there are much deeper reasons for attempting to murder Zachery. But too much probing below the matter-of-fact comic surface is too dangerous for Babe. Better that the audience be surprised into laughter at the incongruous explanation, while they surmise that there’s more to it.

Playwright Beth Henley (b. 1952) herself comes right out of this deep South Mississippi mileau, as she was born in Jackson, Mississippi and grew up there. Her parents were an attorney and an actress (who did not desert the family or commit suicide) and Henley was one of four sisters, so the territory is familiar. She graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1974, did graduate work at the University of Illinois, and spent a few years teaching playwriting there and performing in a repertory company. By 1976, she had followed a lover to L.A. and committed herself to writing Crimes of the Heart.

Crimes of the Heart was first produced in 1978 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it won a new American play contest. In 1981 it was produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club to great critical acclaim and moved to Broadway where it ran for 535 performances and 13 previews. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981 as well as the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best American Play and a Tony nomination. Henley’s screenplay for the popular 1986 movie adaptation garnered an Oscar nomination. While this is Henley’s best known and most successful play, she has had a long career of playwriting and screenwriting.


The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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