Dysfunction Junction

The Chenango River Theatre is doing a great job of helping me relive some of my favorite ‘80s movies, live and on stage. First, it was “Other People’s Money” last month; now, it’s “Crimes of the Heart.”

You remember that 1986 chestnut, don’t you? All Southern Gothic with a comedic twist and an all-star cast - Sissie Spacek, Jessica Lange and Diane Keaton? Well I’d forgotten most of it, actually. If memory serves, I saw it at the dollar theater in Oswego, dragged there by a bunch of girls from my dorm and thoroughly unimpressed, despite what the critics at the time were saying.

The folks down in Greene, quickly becoming my favorite troupe, changed that impression last weekend as I got to see “Crimes of the Heart” up close and personal.

And personal, it is. Weaving parody and melodrama seamlessly, “Crimes” tells the story of three Southern Belles – Lenny, Meg and Babe McGrath, who converge on their hometown of Hazelhurst, Miss. after young Babe is accused of shooting her elderly husband. It doesn’t take the audience long to figure out that the McGrath girls are about as dysfunctional as they come. Raised by their grandfather after their mother hung herself (and the cat – don’t ask) in the basement, Lenny (Heidi Weeks) is a wallflower and worrywart, Meg (Nicole Davidsen) is a boozy washed-up singer, and Babe (Haley Zale) is a few dances short of a cotillion.

Things go from bad to worse over the course of a single day and night, as the sisters’ sordid lives begin to unravel before our very eyes. The tone of the play, written by Beth Henley, changes effortlessly from comedy to drama in the blink of an eye. The chemistry among the three sisters, ranging from childlike silliness to raging contempt, is utterly believable in any family context, and the three members of the Chenango River Theatre cast bond them with the audience over the course of a couples hours as if they’d known them their entire lives.

‘Versatility’ is a word bandied about in Hollywood usually when an actor goes from big budget summer blockbuster to low budget indie failure, but with the Greene company, the true meaning of the descriptor is evidenced by Heidi Weeks. In “Other People’s Money,” Weeks nailed the role of a sexy hotshot corporate lawyer; in “Crimes,” she switches gears to play the dowdy, neurotic Lenny. If I hadn’t read it in the playbill, I might not have known it was the same actress. She’s that good. Matching her every step of the way is Nicole Davidsen as the tart of the town, Meg McGrath. Chain-smoking her way from easy bravado to heart-rending vulnerability, Davidsen’s Meg is the center of attention throughout the play, and deservedly so.

The talented cast of “Crimes of the Heart” also includes Zachary LeVey as the quiet and simple Doc, a former lover of Meg’s, and Paul Hufker as Barnette, Babe’s skittish and smitten attorney. But the real standout among the supporting cast is Betsy Head’s Chick, a snooty cousin of the McGrath girls who plays up the Southern Belle card to mask her inner bitch. Her portrayal, exaggerated accent and all, reminded me of Carol Burnett as Eunice in those old “Mama’s Family” skits. She’s a joy to watch, especially when Lenny’s finally had enough and chases her out with a broom!

No matter what level of dysfunction your family copes with on a daily basis, trust me when I say it’s nothing compared to what the McGraths are going through down in Greene. So take a break from reality and revel in someone else’s trials and tribulations for a while. It’s good therapy.

“Crimes of the Heart,” CRT’s final production of the season, runs through Nov. 2 in the company’s new building at 991 State Route 12, about 3 miles south of Greene.

Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., plus Sunday matinees at 2. Tickets are $16 Thursdays, $18 Fridays & Sundays, and $22 on Saturdays. All performances start on time and there is no late seating. The box office opens one half hour before curtain. For reservations, call 656-8499 (TIXX), or go to www.chenangorivertheatre.org.

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