By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
Special to the Rafu
A young woman sits at the kitchen table pushing a candle into a cookie. She fumbles with a book of matches, struggling to light the candle. Finally managing to catch the wick alight, she lifts up the cookie delicately in her palms and opens her mouth in song. “Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me,” she sings, smiling with determined brightness.
This is Lenny Magrath (played by Elizabeth Liang), one of the three stars of “Crimes of the Heart,” East West Players’ most recent production under the direction of Leslie Ishii. It’s Lenny’s 30th birthday and she rings it in alone, unmarried and living by herself in her childhood home. As she takes a breath to blow out her candle, its flame dies out. Lenny frowns, clumsily relights it, and starts her song again from the beginning. “Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me…”
Before she even has a chance to eat her pitiful birthday cookie, she receives news that her beloved horse has died, and her two younger sisters return to the house under less-than-favorable circumstances: the youngest, Babe (Maya Erskine), has just shot her husband. When pressed for a motive, Babe only replies stubbornly, “I didn’t like his looks.”
The self-absorbed middle sister, Meg (Kimiko Gelman), meanwhile, has just flown in from Hollywood, where—we later find out—she has abandoned her pursuit of a singing career and works instead as a clerk at a dog food company. Neither sister remembers Lenny’s birthday and once the three find themselves under the same roof, the expected chaos of personality clashes ensues.
“Crimes of the Heart” at first appears to be a lighthearted, comedic treatment of serious familial themes. Though playwright Beth Henley’s tale deals with issues like suicide, domestic abuse, attempted murder, terminal illness, and loneliness, every misfortune seems to have a punch-line, and the quirks of each “delightfully dysfunctional” sister keep the play upbeat, even if darkly so.
The Magraths’ mother, for example, not only hanged herself—she hung her cat along with her, so she wouldn’t have to die alone. Lenny won’t be able to have children because of what Meg and Babe call a “shrunken” and “deformed” ovary, and the sisters can’t help but laugh at a tragically well-timed comment about their granddad’s declining health.
Beneath both the layers of darkness and humor, however, Henley’s play is essentially a story about relationships between people close to each other: how we hurt one another, how long the wounds we inflict can really continue to cause pain, and how we can go about beginning to heal ourselves and each other.
Throughout the course of the play, we watch as the relationships between the seen and unseen characters reveal themselves in increasing complexity: Doc Porter (Tim Chiou) is not only Meg’s ex-lover, but one she abandoned in a time of crisis, changing the course of his life; the Magraths’ granddad causes Lenny to break off her relationship with a man she loves, warning her that no man will want to marry an infertile woman. And years after the fact, their mother’s suicide continues to haunt the three sisters, each in a different way.
The small cast (six actors in all) wonderfully presents the tension between characters. In one particularly memorable scene, Meg returns to the house just after Lenny has been ranting about her behavior to Babe. Gelman enters the stage clueless, smoking with a carefree smile on her face, and Liang immediately busies herself in the kitchen, clanging pots and pans around on the stove. Erskine’s Babe, in anticipation of the impending fight, clips coupons at the table in the middle of the kitchen, looking nervously back and forth between her sisters. Before any of the three utters a word, we understand their relationship.
That “Crimes of the Heart” won Henley a Pulitzer Prize comes as no surprise. In her artfully written script, the author unveils details gradually, allowing for revelations in the audience while maintaining plausibility. Also, the humorous presentation of even the darkest of situations keeps the play from feeling melodramatic, putting an extra layer for thought between the audience and the truths at the heart of “Crimes.”
Under Ishii’s direction, the cast makes Henley’s script shine. Erskine charms with her portrayal of the troubled but still childlike Babe, remorselessly telling the story of how she tried to kill her husband one moment and prancing around onstage in a nightgown playing “The Girl from Ipanema” on the saxophone the next. At the same time, Liang infuses her role with so much self-deprecation and heart that by the end of the play, when her life begins to pick up momentum again, the audience feels her joy as if it were their own.
As the play winds down in the second act, few plot lines are resolved, yet it feels as if the Magrath sisters have come a long way in their understanding of each other and, through that, in their own healing processes. “We gotta find a way to get through these bad days!” Meg says while comforting Babe after she hits a particularly low point. And by the end, each of the three finds some way of doing just that. The final scene, though it leaves no illusion of a perfect future to follow for the sisters, is an optimistic one, staged in a clever, and ultimately satisfying, way.
Crimes of the Heart will be staged at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts through Dec. 5. General tickets range from $35-$45. For ticket purchases or more information, call East West Players at (213) 625-7000 or visit eastwestplayers.org. Senior, student and group discounts are available. Dates and details are subject to change.