According to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, any firearm that appears in the first act of a play must be shot by the third, the point being to exclude extraneous elements and avoid creating unmet expectations in the audience. What, then, might our expectations be when, seconds in, thunder rolls as a shot rings out and a flash of lightning reveals a main character with every fibre of her being tensed around the gun she’s pointing?
The set is Old Granddaddy’s kitchen, revealed again in daylight. It’s ‘70s Mississippi, authentic from the linoleum to the ice box. (Transposed to PEI, I’d swear I’ve sat in that kitchen, probably with a sister or two.) Beyond the kitchen windows is a lush backdrop of blooming greenery, against which we see our characters stroll and stomp, sashay and stagger in and out of the house as they are moved to do.
Mama has decamped to the great beyond, leaving her three daughters behind to wonder why. (Best guess, she was just having “a real bad day.”) Daddy’s gone too (and good riddance). Old Granddaddy’s in hospital after suffering a stroke, and the Magrath sisters are gathering in the wake of events surrounding that gunshot. The story plays out over the day of and the day after Lenny Magrath’s 30th birthday.
Hannah Wayne-Phillips plays Lenny with sensitivity so that the character retains her dignity in the face of details that could make her seem ridiculous. Lenny’s trying to insert a single candle into a crumbling cookie as day dawns in the kitchen. Enter cousin Chick, a poodle-permed nightmare of southern propriety, played by Alexandra Montagnese with the hilarious absolute self-assurance characteristic of that breed. Sister Meg, played by Leah Pritchard, arrives next, returning defeated from NYC where her musical career has failed to take off. Meg is a firecracker and Pritchard is suitably incendiary, all flames and loose cannon energy. Jenna Marie’s Babe, on the other hand, is a doe-eyed naif, sweet but vague. You can see how Babe might drift into ill-advised situations, and drift she has. This is not a particularly good day for any of the sisters, and the potential fallout from that gunshot could make it much worse, although the bullet missed the heart it targeted and left the victim gutshot instead.
The Watermark’s presentation of Crimes of the Heart is beautifully staged and smartly directed. The lighting subtly complements the set, evoking time, place and mood. Each of the actors creates fully-fledged characters that we come to care about, including Warren Bain as Doc Porter and Jacob Hemphill as Barnette Lloyd, both solid. But for me, the most powerful element of this performance is its faithful rendering of the ability of family to accommodate all our secret shames, our murderous impulses and our questionable decisions, the bond strong enough to get us through even the real bad days. And here’s the final analysis on that gunshot: It’s a hit. They got us right in the guts, and in the heart as well.