I recognized that bowl.

The bowl that was made by Doc Porter’s wife and given to Lenny, I recognized that bowl. Not the shape or the color of it, but its value to the character of Lenny who shows this by placing it in the center of the kitchen table. I remember, growing up, we would put gifts we received from neighbors on the kitchen table where they sat like prized possessions. It was an honor for something to go on the kitchen table: everyone sees it. Triad Stage’s production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart is a lesson in displaying these subtleties of Southern life: the importance of a neighbor’s gift, the closeness of family, and facing the realities of life, all with a tongue in cheek.

The setting is 1974 Mississippi, yet Henley’s play seems like it could be taking place at any time in any Southern household – minus the glass Coke bottles and long-chorded phones that create a retro feel to the play. What unfolds in the next two-and-a-half hours is a story about three sisters trying to adjust to change in their own ways, while holding on to the values they grew up on. Babe, the youngest of the Magrath sisters, has shot her husband in the gut and is being tried for his attempted murder. Coming home to help is Meg, a Country singer who has lost her momentum in life and career, and Lenny, the sister who has stayed home to take care of Grandaddy, who is now in a coma. With any homecoming comes secrets revealed, jealousy, laughter, and plenty of tears – happy and sad – as these three sisters seem to finally realize that getting older means different things to different people.

Henley’s play is not Steel Magnolias. It is not a superficial portrait of Southern life. Instead, it presents Southern life in a more difficult tone to deal with. The tone is like Lenny’s chocolate birthday cake: bright and sweet on the outside and dark on the inside.  The story seems like a good ol’ Southern family comedy, but harbors deeper insights into death, suicide, family, and lost love in Southern life that no other play has done so beautifully since, with the possible exception of Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County back in 2008.

Jane Unger’s production captured the light and dark moments gracefully, with a notable final scene that was brilliantly executed. Much of the first half of the play is spent exposing the characters and intricacies of the plot, and Unger made all of this interesting and exciting, making us eager to come back after intermission to see where it would all go.

As for interesting and exciting, the cast was marvelous. Amy Bodnar’s Chick Boyle, the typical ‘Bless-Your-Heart’ Southern lady, was radiant in her scenes of verbal and physical comedy, making us hate what she’s says but love how she says it.

The sisters all stole the show in the special moments Henley has given them. Eliza Gilbert was empathetic and heart breaking as Lenny; her phone scene in Act II was a standout moment of beautiful delivery and direction. Karis Danish’s Meg was feisty, but suffers from Henley’s thin characterization of her in the first act. Danish as Meg took off in the second act, when Henley gives Meg more ammunition for battling her inner demons. Katya Stepanov was a fine Babe, a girl who grows into a strong, independent woman in the span of these two-and-a-half hours. Dustin Charles was a likable Doc Porter, and Lee Wilson played the young lawyer assigned to Babe’s case with restrained control – the town’s nice guy who tries hard to keep his personal feelings and professional aspirations from blending together, sometimes unsuccessfully.

It was high time Triad Stage did this play. It is being performed in association with another Triad-produced Henley play, Abundance, in Winston Salem. More people should see Crimes than something like Steel Magnolias. Crimes gets to your heart and gives you a lot to think about afterwards. It makes me miss going home and seeing how different the kitchen table looks when I walk in through the door.

Crimes of the Heart continues through Sunday, April 26. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.