Asian turn rejuvenates 'Crimes of the Heart'


If you were to come in late, you'd see these people at a kitchen table, laughing uncontrollably, and talking about granddaddy's latest stroke and the resultant coma. Death seems imminent. And you might say to yourself, "Harsh! What harpies! Carrying on with such hilarity, what with granddaddy so poorly and all."

"So poorly and all?" Mississippi playwright Beth Henley's funky syntax has rubbed off on me. But you, as the hypothetical latecomer to Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" (now playing at the Theatre Off Jackson) would not have had a chance to succumb to syntactical infection. You'd just be nonplussed in your own nonfunky way.

But these seemingly harsh harpies have to be put in context. By the time we get to granddaddy's woeful state (we who get to the theaters on time), we've been through a lot.

We've heard about the hurricane in Biloxi, Doc's terrible accident, Lenny's shrunken ovary, Babe's dabbling in what a strict judge would call statutory rape, Barnette's perilous vendetta, Meg's psychotic episode (not to mention her four-day toothache), mama's suicide and the Boyle boys' brush with toxic materials. And then there are the unfortunate animals: the cat and the horse who met with truly extraordinary fates.

So, in context, granddaddy's not untimely predicament and his granddaughters' not incomprehensible reaction are all part of a not illogical scheme.

"Crimes of the Heart" is outrageously funny. It is also heart-warming. Nothing warms the heart, criminal or otherwise, like forgiveness. And, as you might gather from the foregoing list of bad karmic influences, there's a lot to forgive in "Crimes of the Heart." Did I mention attempted murder? And willful mutilation of chocolate creams? Well add them to the list.

Director David Hsieh captures both the humor and poignancy of Henley's writing in his Repertory Actors Workshop production at the Theatre Off Jackson. The three sisters who are the prime criminals - Lenny, Meg and Babe - all face up to and win out over manic depression, with the help of family solidarity and a big dose of birthday cake.

Kathy Hsieh (David's sister) plays the usually serious Lenny, Gigi Jhong is the usually flamboyant Meg and Colleen Parker is the usually giddy Babe. Like most non-Mississippians, the Repertory trio of actresses has some trouble conveying the uninhibited temperament of Gulf Coast gals pushing one another toward ever greater extremes.

But they do a pretty good job with southern diction. And they avoid the usual temptation with this show: freaky caricatures and cheap laughs.

Lisa Marie Nakamura plays obnoxious cousin Chick, Kristofer L. Cochran is the charming and gallant Doc (one of Meg's many exes) and Dustin Chinn is the endearingly geeky Barnette (Babe's infinitely understanding and highly motivated lawyer).

The Repertory Actors Workshop is essentially an Asian American company that produces works like "The Dining Room" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" - and "Crimes of the Heart" - in which an Asian American actor's chances of being cast under ordinary circumstances are about nil.

Novel production approaches can give new life to old plays. I'm not sure I'd want to see another conventionally cast "Crimes of the Heart." Once you've picked your way through the darkness of Henley's humor and burst into brightness of her kindliness, you pretty much know the territory. But Hsieh freshens up the context.

His stage design is realistic. But the realism includes a flower scroll with calligraphy over the venerable refrigerator, a rice cooker by the back door and a bunch of chopsticks in the dishrack by the sink. The reality of Asian Americans up ther on stage is not denied or ignored.

Fair is fair. everyone needs a chance now and then to experience the anguish and exhilaration of a Deep South criminal heart.

July 15, 1996


Crimes of the Heart. By Beth Henley. Repertory Actors Workshop production at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S. Through Aug. 4. Tickets $6-$12, pay what you can Sunday; 364-3283.

© 1996 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Reprinted with permission by ReAct.

Home | Box Office | About Us | History | Artists | Donate | Opportunities | Shop | ReAct Links | Contact Us