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Grief As A Laughing Matter

Sisterhood drama is gigglefest at Firebelly.

Playwright Beth Henley was on to something when she envisioned a three-act drama about how sisters deal with mounting pressures of grief, failure, approaching spinsterhood and a murder indictment – laughter. After all, when siblings share their innermost emotions and those emotions get too strong for logical, intellectual discussion, they must burst out in either tears or laughs.

Firebelly Productions is presenting Henley’s play "Crimes of the Heart" at the Theatre on the Run on South Four Mile Run Drive through April 19. It plumbs the depth of that often-ignored reality. After all, bursting into giggles over your grandfather’s demise might seem to outsiders to be the epitome of bad taste. To three sisters, however, it is an uncontrollable joint response built on decades of sibling bonding.

The sisters, in chronological order, are played by Shelby Sours, Melissa Graves and Sonia Justl. They are the focus of the play, although two men appear on stage and two others are important people in the story whom we never actually see.

Sours is the one who has remained at home to care for their grandfather, who, as the play begins, is hospitalized with yet another stroke but who doesn’t survive into the third act. In addition to the pressures of being the caretaker for the last member of that dying older generation, she is also facing her 30th birthday with a sense of dread as it seems to be the start of the spinsterhood she fears is her plight. Sours combines a sense of responsibility with a touch of the girlish giddiness she has yet to shed.

Graves is the middle sister, home in defeat after spending years in Hollywood waiting tables and auditioning for work in commercials while telling the folk back home about how well her career is going. (No, she’s not really going to be on the Tonight Show next week!) Graves gives the role a sardonic sense of the irony of any situation which those who have had too many doors slammed in their faces seem to develop out of self protection.

It is Justl who energizes much of the play as the youngest who is out on bail after her arrest for shooting her husband. She’s in something of a denial stage and she has difficulty comprehending the seriousness of the information her young (and attracted) attorney, Jonathan Lee Taylor, tries to get her to understand.

Director Patricia Foreman presents the play as it was originally intended, as a three act piece that takes the time needed to set up the relationship of the three sisters so that the final attack of giggles comes across as a very human response to intolerable pressures rather than as a cheap theatrical trick. Not all theaters do it this way. The play was performed with a single intermission the last time this reviewer saw it and it was not as effective that way.

Henley’s play debuted in 1978 at the Actors Theatre in Louisville before being staged on Broadway where it added a Tony Award for Best Play to its Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1986 it was made into a movie with Diane Keaton, Jessica Lang and Sissy Spacek as the sisters.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.</i>