Three sisters caught between laughter, tragedy in latest WICA production

They boast of Southern charm, they are funny, they are fragile. But make no mistake: Below the surface, the ladies of the MaGrath household have far more spice than sugar running in their veins.

Melanie Lowey as Lenny

They boast of Southern charm, they are funny, they are fragile. But make no mistake: Below the surface, the ladies of the MaGrath household have far more spice than sugar running in their veins.

Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy drama “Crimes of the Heart” is coming to Whidbey Island Center for the Arts from Feb. 8 through Feb. 23.

At the core of the tragic comedy are the MaGrath sisters, Meg, Babe and Lenny, who reunite at Old Granddaddy’s home in Hazlehurst, Miss.

Lenny’s horse is dead, Meg’s singing career is dead and Babe’s husband is near dead — after she shot him.

“At one level this seems like a Southern family version of Sartre’s ‘No Exit,’ as each character seems to have created her own hell, made worse by complex and often humorous interactions with the others,” said director Rose Woods. “However, a deeper, more focused perspective reveals a resilient and loving endurance as the sisters come together.”

The play about the dysfunctional trio blends all the ingredients of a black comedy in the Southern Gothic vein.

Raised in a family with a penchant for ugly predicaments, each has endured her share of hardship and misery. Past resentments bubble to the surface quickly as they’re forced to deal with assorted relatives and past relationships while coping with the latest incident that has disrupted their lives. But nothing — not meddling cousins, nor past and present lovers, nor a touch of mental illness — can truly knock these women down.

Each sister is forced to face the consequences of her “crimes” she has committed, all while the sisters’ grandfather languishes in the hospital facing death.

“I have always loved the play,” Woods said. “And I have a special fascination of the South.”

That’s why Woods chose to share this work with Whidbey audiences, but the material makes it a treasure chest for audiences and actors alike.

“Beth Henley loosely based the Pulitzer Prize-winning script on Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ and I wanted to explore that as well,” Woods said.

But the three MaGrath sisters are a far cry from Anton Chekhov’s trio of sisters, whose lives appear easy by comparison. The eldest, Lenny, is lonely, but enduring and survives by keeping busy. Meg is blowsy and reckless and Babe is dreamy and idealistic, but they all share the same sadness and restlessness. Babe has just shot her husband, Meg has had a nervous breakdown, and Lenny is having her 30th birthday and feeling her life is basically over — all reunite in their hometown to reconcile the past, confront the present and embrace the future.

The source material provides enough depth to successfully balance tears and laughter without coming off corny.

“The six characters are finely drawn with passions that often get the better of their common sense in a pure vein of Southern Gothic humor,” Woods said. “I wanted to delve into this rich, often dark world.”

Katie Woodzick, who plays Meg MaGrath, the middle sister and bohemian wild child, struggling to fit back into the family dynamic, said that Woods succeeded in this quest and brought out the best of the material and the cast.

“Rose has an outstanding reputation as a director in this community,” she said. “Audiences love to see her work. She creates a unique sense of intimacy among her cast members that draws the audience in and elevates the play.

“‘Crimes of the Heart’ is no exception.”

Woodzick is joined by Melanie Lowey who plays Lenny, and Ahna Dunn-Wilder as Babe. Gail Liston as Chick Boyle, Damien Cortez as Doc Porter, and Michael Morgen as Barnette Lloyd round out the cast.

“The six actors in this play have been astounding, heart-breakingly honest, often searing, fall-down hilarious and dedicated,” Woods said of her cast.

“Every rehearsal is a discovery and they each continue to come to the table bringing something powerful and insightful,” she added.

Woods said that it has been a great experience directing this cast.

“It’s been one of those plays that reminds me why I love directing,” she added.

Woods said her cast of many homegrown Pacific Northwest actors has also tackled the Southern Drawl with enthusiasm and skill.

“We’ve been blessed to have Robert Durr as our Mississippi dialect consultant,” she said. “It has been invaluable. The cast has definitely risen to the challenge and surpassed my expectations.”

Woodzick said that Durr not only coached dialect, but also helped the actors capture the cultural norms of the South, enhancing the charm and depth of the characters.

Woods hopes that audiences will bring their own perspective and relate to the very human and hilarious dramas of these characters.

“Be prepared to laugh through tears and cry themselves back into laughter again,” she said.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.wicaonline.com, or at 221-8268, or at the box office at 565 Camano Ave. in Langley. Ticket prices range from $15 to $22.

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