Trauma, dark humor and the bonds of sisterhood are the themes of American Stage’s production of “Crimes of the Heart,” which opened Jan. 11 and runs through Feb. 5 in St. Petersburg.
Playwright Beth Henley won a Pulitzer Prize for the drama in 1981. Set in Mississippi in 1974, the play is centered around the three Magrath sisters, Lenny, Babe and Meg.
The dark comedy takes place in the kitchen of Old Granddaddy’s house, where the sisters have reunited after Babe has shot her husband.
Chicago-based Elizabeth Margolius is the director of the play. It’s her first time working with American Stage and with the material.
Margolius had to carefully re-envision the play set in the Deep South in the 1970s without diverting from the script.
The main difference is the casting. “Crimes of the Heart” is traditionally played by an all-white cast, but American Stage’s production casts people of color in every role.
That decision didn’t come without challenges, Margolius said during a phone interview. There are racist tones in the piece, especially concerning Babe’s affair with a 15-year-old Black teenager. She and the cast discussed how to approach the lines and come from a place that’s more sensitive, while encouraging broad conversation.
“This play can be played by anyone, period, because the play is not about the color of our skin,” she said. “The play is about family and love and ... very serious themes of suicide and mental illness, so it’s a play about all of us.”
The characters in “Crimes of the Heart” are meant to be sympathized with despite the questionable morality of the things they’ve done. Playwright Henley has been praised for treating traumatic events with humor.
“It’s interesting how she’s sort of layered comedy over it to somehow give it a form of lightness, but I don’t think in doing that, that Henley was making a comment that anything was light about these issues,” Margolius said. “It was just her way of talking about them in a way that was consumable for audiences.”
Margolius took a new approach to the play by considering the events that would have been happening in the world at the time the play is set, like Watergate and civil rights. She said it’s very reflective of what’s happening in the world today.
“I started to ask the question of how much of what is happening outside of our immediate lives, our kitchens, affects what we do inside our kitchen,” she said. “Kitchen, of course, being a metaphor for our lives, but you’ll see images that creep into the play that echo what’s happening in the larger world.”
As a musician who got into musical theater, Margolius took an interest in the way people move, and now calls herself a movement director. This is different than dance, so she’s not a choreographer.
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“I’m interested in creating movement in the piece that is very accessible,” she said. “I deconstruct subtext and underlying action in this play, by the movement of the characters and the actors.”
As for the cast and crew, Margolius was effusive when she described working with them.
“It’s really exciting to bring together this extraordinarily diverse group and create this piece of theater in Florida,” she said.
If you go
“Crimes of the Heart.” Through Feb. 5. $45. American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. 727-823-7529. americanstage.org.