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On Theater: ‘Crimes’ committed lavishly in Mesa

On Theater: ‘Crimes’ committed lavishly in Mesa
Silvana Gargione, Alexandria Churchwell and Stephanie Noel Garrison star in director Madison Wackerman's production of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," which runs at the Costa Mesa Playhouse through Feb. 17. (Photo by Kerrin Serna)

The Southern-fried characters created by playwright Beth Henley have become part of America’s theatrical landscape, but when local playhouses wish to tackle them, they inevitably turn to Henley’s second effort — the one that earned her the Pulitzer Prize.

“Crimes of the Heart,” focusing on three widely disparate sisters in rural Mississippi in 1974, five years after Hurricane Camille (it’s an important script element), is enjoying a full-bodied revival at the Costa Mesa Playhouse under the keen direction of Madison Wackerman, who employs enforced silence as an effective dramatic tool.

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The sisters are Lenny, a 30-year-old spinster who’s tasted love just once; Meg, who fled to Hollywood to pursue an unsuccessful singing career; and Babe, in trouble with the law after shooting her husband.

They’re the daughters of a town legend — their mother hanged herself along with the family cat — and each has that cross to bear in addition to her own. Success doesn’t come easily for these three.

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The Costa Mesa production is a balanced effort, but one sister in particular stands out. Stephanie Noel Garrison brilliantly enacts the plain, lovelorn Lenny from spells of brooding to moments of violent excess. Her agonizing over her perceived futility is frighteningly real.

Cindy Cisneros plays Babe in Beth Henley's dark comedy "Crimes of the Heart," which runs at the Costa Mesa Playhouse through Feb. 17.
Cindy Cisneros plays Babe in Beth Henley's dark comedy "Crimes of the Heart," which runs at the Costa Mesa Playhouse through Feb. 17. (Photo by Kerrin Serna)

Cindy Cisneros enriches the role of Babe with her mood swings and attempts to toot her own horn, a saxophone purchased on impulse. She’s especially effective while relating the circumstances of the shooting, a shocking tale in her part of the country.

The frisky, self-absorbed Meg, who may have gone Hollywood but seems more at home in Mississippi, is rendered in a lower key by Silvana Gargione. She enjoys a touching reunion scene with an old beau, now married, nicely played by Mark Tillman.

The role of Babe’s lawyer, a determined young man just out of law school, is finely characterized by Joseph Daniels, whose perfection of dress and manner poses a sharp contrast with the others. He also projects his attraction to Babe without making a physical gesture.

The family kitchen where the action transpires is impressively designed by Michael Serna, radiating a true lived-in quality. Ryan Linhardt’s lighting effects convey atmospheric reality.

“Crimes of the Heart” addresses more than the peccadilloes of the rural South. It touches on humanity with the skill of a master playwright in this sterling revival at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

Tom Titus reviews local theater.

IF YOU GO

What: “Crimes of the Heart”

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Feb. 17

Cost: $18 to $22

Information: (949) 650-5269; CostaMesaPlayhouse.com

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