The Towne Players of Garner’s community-theater presentation of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Southern gothic comedy, Crimes of the Heart, is moderately entertaining, but not quite the laff riot that it could be. The principal culprit is casting. Because of youth and/or inexperience, some cast members are simply not capable of exploiting the full comic potential of their characters or delivering Henley’s delightful dialogue with just the right twist on each word. So, the show smolders but never quite catches fire.

Passion is a big problem for the three Magrath sisters of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, circa 1974. Whenever Lenny (Kelly Stansell), Meg (Janet Doughty), and Babe (Maggie Cochran) get their blood up, they are likely to lose control of their emotions. The resulting crimes of the heart give award-winning Mississippi playwright Beth Henley the title for this, her award-winning inaugural effort about a trio of wonderfully off-the-wall sisters still scarred by the tabloid-headline-grabbing murder-suicide by hanging of their depressed mother and the family cat. It wasn’t curiosity that killed the Magrath family cat; it was mom.

Kelly Stansell needs to put a little bit more personality into poor, put-upon Lenny, the pitiable stay-at-home sister saddled with the care of Old Granddaddy; but Towne Players mainstay Janet Doughty and Maggie Cochran demonstrate personality plus in their performances as wild-child middle sister Meg, who has put Hazlehurst in her rear-view mirror to pursue a (nonexistent) country-singing career in Los Angeles, and emotionally volatile Rebecca “Babe”/“Becky” Magrath Botrell, who just shot her wealthy and politically prominent husband, attorney Zachary Botrell, because (she says) she just didn’t like his looks.

Doughty and Cochran deservedly garner the lion’s share of the laughs in this production, but Towne Players mainstay Tim Upchurch is also good as Meg’s gimpy former sweetheart Doc Porter, who is married with children but still carries a gigantic torch for Meg. Sharon Pearce provides some chuckles as the Magrath sisters’ hilariously high-strung and holier-than-thou social-climbing cousin Chick Boyle; but young, inexperienced, long-haired, bearded Josh Hamilton looks and acts more like a Hippie who wandered in from another play than plucky small-time defense attorney Barnette Lloyd, who has fire in his belly and sees Babe’s attempted murder of her husband as a chance to get some courtroom revenge on the rival attorney.

In all fairness, I should say that the Saturday-matinee audience for Crimes of the Heart seemed to have a high old time. But this production by Towne Players artistic director Beth Honeycutt just doesn’t measure up to the best of her previous productions which were as good a Triangle community theater gets despite a remarkably realistic set designed by Beth Honeycutt; her husband, Scott; Douglas Burns; and Janet Doughty. The Magrath family kitchen, which serves a backdrop for the action, is homey and complete down to the tiniest detail.

The Towne Players of Garner presents Crimes of the Heart Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 26-28, at 8 p.m. at North Garner Magnet Middle School, 720 Powell Dr., Garner, North Carolina. $8 ($6 students and seniors). 919/779-6144. Towne Players of Garner: Internet Broadway Database: Internet Movie Database: