There's something to the idea that America's best stories come from the South.
Places with a history of conflict – say, Russia, or Latin America – have long drawn from a deep well of struggles and heartache for their art. And as the place that broke off to form its own country, that was center stage in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continues to have some of the highest poverty rates in the country, is there a more fertile setting in America than the South?
One play that helps make this case is Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Crimes of the Heart," currently onstage at Virginia Repertory Theatre's Hanover Tavern. Set in mid-1970s Mississippi, the show concerns three sisters and the setbacks they've encountered.
There's Lenny, the 30-year-old who feels passed over by life as she cares for their aging grandfather. There's Meg, the singer who went out to Hollywood in an unsuccessful attempt to make it big. And there's Babe, the sister who just shot her abusive husband in the stomach.
Against Terrie Powers' cozy kitchen set, we soon learn that the Magrath family seems genetically predisposed to mental illness and disappointment, sometimes becoming famous in the process. As Babe's husband is a state senator, his shooting is now known throughout the state. Years earlier, the death of the family's matriarch made national headlines after she hanged herself alongside her cat.
Long a showcase for talented actresses, this "Crimes" doesn't disappoint. As the put-upon older sister Lenny, Maggie Roop gives a winning performance as a mousy woman struggling to find connection in the world. As Meg, Irene Kuykendall charms as the Southern wild child with a soft spot for booze and men. Rounding out the trio, Lexi Langs is delightfully kooky as Babe, especially amusing in her flirtatious scenes with Tyler Stevens, who portrays her character's lawyer.
Playing Chick, the sisters' busybody cousin, Maggie Bavolack is hilarious, disappointing only in how little stage time her character gets. And as Doc, Meg's former flame who she left in a hurricane, Arik Cullen lends a hunky presence.
As dramatic as the play's premise might seem, it's surprisingly funny, with tragedy and humor often served side by side. It's difficult to imagine laughing harder at a suicide attempt or news of a stroke.
Given its focus on female relationships, tragic-comic happenings and setting in the Deep South, comparisons to "Steel Magnolias" are inevitable, though this is definitely a more substantial work. I'm not hating on "Magnolias," but few of this show's lines feel like you'd see them stitched on a pillow somewhere.
Though two-and-a-half hours long with two intermissions, the show never feels long under Steve Perigard's direction, which smartly balances the play's light and dark elements.
It's a rare show that focuses so much on melancholy; it's even rarer to find one that does it so well.
Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Crimes of the Heart" runs through Aug. 26 at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, 23069. For information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.