It's not surprising that South Coast Repertory is staging Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Crimes of the Heart." What's astonishing is that it took SCR 30 years to "discover" it after producing three other Henley works.
It was, after all, "Crimes of the Heart" that started Henley's ball rolling back in 1979. In the interim, her scripts of "The Debutante Ball," "Abundance" and "Ridiculous Fraud" all have taken flight on the Costa Mesa stage.
"Crimes" remains the cream of Henley's crop. It was well worth waiting for as SCR has mounted a beautifully balanced dramatic comedy centered on three squabbling but loving Mississippi sisters dealing with their respective turmoils. It's a masterpiece of Southern discomfort.
Director Warner Shook has populated this riveting revival with three superb actresses — Blair Sams as Lenny, turning 30 and facing imminent spinsterhood; Jennifer Lyon as Meg, the stunning blonde singer who sought stardom in Hollywood to her dismay; and Kate Rylie as Babe, the youngest, who's charged with shooting her state senator husband because she "didn't like his looks."
Sams renders a heart-tugging performance as the least showy of the siblings, allowing her emotions to simmer inside her until she reaches a breaking point. Lyon takes stage like the professional entertainer she yearns to be, though her cousin dismisses her as "cheap Christmas trash." Rylie is a compassion-eliciting hoot, describing how, after shooting her husband, she "went to the kitchen and made a pitcher of lemonade."
The three actresses function as a well-oiled unit, right down to their simultaneous curtain call. The fly in their ointment is cousin Chick (another electric performance from Tessa Auberjonis), who brightens the opening scene considerably and serves as the judgmental voice of the outside world.
There are a few men involved, if only on the fringes. Nathan Baesel excels as Babe's steely young lawyer who's declared a "vendetta" on her powerful husband. Kasey Mahaffy completes the picture as Meg's former beau, now married and a father, who's still captivated by his old flame.
These are — after three decades and a few local community theater productions — familiar figures, and we know pretty much what to expect from them. Nevertheless, it's a pure guilty pleasure to bask in their pitch-perfect performances and Henley's mouth-watering dialogue.
Embellishing the experience is Thomas Buderwitz's well-appointed down-home setting (with appropriately mismatched kitchen table chairs) and the just-right costuming (especially in Lyon's case) by Angela Balogh Calin.
"Crimes of the Heart" maintains its one-two comic and dramatic punch in one of the finest productions of the year at SCR.
If You Go What: "Crimes of the Heart"Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through June 6Cost: $28 to $65Call: (714) 708-5555