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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UWGB’s ‘Crimes of the Heart’ fascinates

The comedy/drama play is well produced.

PHOTO: Ashley Wisneski, from left, Katelyn Kluever and Cherran Dea Rasmovicz play sisters in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay production of “Crimes of the Heart.” UWGB photo

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – Mama hanged herself and her cat. Meg, the middle of her three daughters, found her body. Welcome to the Magrath household of Hazelhurst, Mississippi.

Granddaddy has provided a roof over the heads of Lenny, Meg and Babe. Now he’s dying, and the sisters are back together, being sisters – sometimes the most awful people in the world to each other. At times, when things are totally rotten in their lives, they laugh uncontrollably among themselves. Funny how family is sometimes.

That’s a little bit of what playwright Beth Henley explores in “Crimes of the Heart.” University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance gives a run at the complexities and has a bristling (4½ stars out of 5) production running through Oct. 26 in Jean Weidner Theatre on campus. Info: www.uwgb.edu/theatre.

The program lists 32 students as carpenters, four as costume technicians, eight as paint crew and seven as electricians. This play is well mounted, with Wendy Huber providing the scenic design for the somewhat dumpy but functional (running water in the kitchen sink) Magrath kitchen and dining room. My goodness, even the floor is painted in squares to look like a patterned linoleum floor.

Director John Mariano has had his actors delve into their characters, then delve some more, particularly the central sisters. What happens on stage has a natural feel, and the illusion is you are sitting in on the Magraths and listening to what makes them tick like a cheap, noisy, beat-up clock.

Creating wonderful moments individually and in sisterly acts are:

- Ashley Wisneski as Lenny Magrath, unmarried at 30 (it’s her birthday) with a busted biological clock.

- Cherran Dea Rasmovicz as Meg Magrath, who has (now smoldering) visions of singing stardom and an (ever smoldering) eye for men, many men.

- Katelyn Kluever as Babe Botrelle, who is out on bail for plugging her lawyer/husband in the belly (after which she made a pitcher of lemonade, then called for medical help).

The able cast includes Morgen Aria Clarey as Chick Boyle, a cousin with a deliciously nasty air of superiority; Andrew Delaurelle as Doc Porter, one of Meg’s smoldering old flames; and Scott Klapperich as Barnette Lloyd, Babe’s attorney, whose briefcase holds an ulterior motive or two.

Lenny, Meg and Babe know all the aggravating points of their sisters, know how to push the hot buttons, know where the scabs are to pick. And yet they are bonded. There is plenty for the actors to work with, and they consistently stay in character in defining a personality.

Without giving anything away, what Babe has done extends beyond seriously wounding her husband. It’s shocking – HOLY COW shocking – and her approach is comical, pragmatic, selfish and sensitive all rolled into one.

“Crimes of the Heart” is a lot of things all rolled into one. The play won the 1981 Pulitzer for drama. UWGB’s version is well produced and fascinating.

VENUE: The 99-seat Jean Weidner Theatre is a fully outfitted black-box space (no adornments; focus on the stage). It primarily is set up as a variation of a thrust stage, with seating on three sides. In the front row, where I sat for “Crimes of the Heart,” my feet could touch the lip of the performance floor. At times, I could have reached out and touched a performer. Intimate? You bet. The space demands the actors be focused on the stage, despite being surrounded by prying eyes. The theater is the smallest of three contained in the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

THE PERSON: Jean Weidner was a psychotherapist and wife of Edward Weidner, founding chancellor of UWGB. The Weidners had four children. Jean Weidner died in 1997. A memorial service was held for her on the stage of the Weidner Center’s main stage amid spectacular set pieces of a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

REST OF SEASON: Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitt’s “Avenue Q,” Nov. 21-23; Phylis Ravel’s “Censored on Final Approach,” Feb. 27-March 8; “DanceWorks,” April 4-5; Alan Ayckbourn’s “Communicating Doors,” April 25-May 3.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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