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More 'Heart' Than 'Crimes'

Pulitzer-winning play mounted at Lee Center.

Halfway into the first act on the opening night of "Crimes of the Heart", the Tapestry Theatre company's production turns from "ho hum" to "Oh! - Hmm!"

It may just have been opening night jitters, or perhaps it really takes that long for the show to begin to gel. But when it starts to click and when all three of the leading ladies are on the stage, "Crimes" is quite enjoyable.

The play is a dark comedy with lots of laughter about some normally unfunny things — suicides, strokes, wives shooting their husbands. It stakes out a viewpoint that all of life is the subject of human foibles, and that often the release of emotional pressure can come in laughter rather than crying jags.

Take, for example, the second act scene in which the three sisters who break down in an uncontrollable explosion of giggles as two of them try to share with the third the disturbing news of their grandfather's latest stroke. People really don't control how great emotional pressures are relieved.

Those pressures weren't the same for all three, however. The youngest of the sisters is out on bail pending trial for the attempted murder of her husband. Hanna Gavagan does a fine job showing the buildup of the pressure on her as she deadpans the reason for her act. (She didn't like the way he looked, she explained.)

Cynthia Heusman is similarly good at showing the underlying tension in her character, the oldest of the three sisters. She's unmarried, has been caretaker for their grandfather, and has tried with only minimal success to maintain the family home in a small town in Mississippi in the early 1970s.

A DIFFERENT KIND of emotional stress has marked the evening of the middle sister, home briefly from her unsuccessful effort to break into show business in California. She's spent most of the night with an old flame, even if he has married and had two children in her absence. Catherine Nelson Hassett gives her portrayal of the middle sister a touch of flash you'd expect from someone who fancies herself as star material in Hollywood.

The performances in the three supporting roles are less successful than those of the leads. While Mary L. Fettes does a nice job with the role of a cousin whose only real interest in the sisters' branch of the family is

what she might inherit when granddaddy dies, neither Alex Avila as the young attorney hired to defend Gavagan's character nor August H. Kruesi as Hassett's old flame can do much with the roles.

Co-directors Zina Bleck and Herb Tax stage the play rather ploddingly before a set that doesn't provide much indication of the struggle Heusman's character has been having trying to keep the house in the family. The decision to place the kitchen table, with its drop-down table cloth in front of the kitchen appliances results in a key scene in which one sister attempts suicide to be played out where a significant portion of the audience can't really see what is going on. The left side of the audience is the better choice for people who would want to see all the action.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.