Broc Nelson and Ashley Hoskins in Crimes of the Heart In the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's current production of Crimes of the Heart, Ashley Hoskins portrays Babe, the youngest and most eccentric of playwright Beth Henley's Magrath sisters, and the actress is like a nervous breakdown on legs.

This is meant as the highest of praise.

Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, directed here by Jeri J. Benson, finds thirtysomething sisters Lenny (Karrie McLaughlin), Meg (Jessica Nicol), and Babe reunited in their girlhood home in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, but not under the happiest of circumstances - Babe has admitted to, and was subsequently arrested for, shooting her husband. (Their grandfather also lies dying in the hospital, but that matters less.) The characters are consequently a mass of anxieties - enjoyable ones - from the start, but as Crimes of the Heart progresses, Babe develops even more reason to be anxious: She's been having an affair with a 15-year-old neighbor, and a private detective now has the pictures to prove it.

Though all three characters are allowed their scenes of apoplectic mania (Henley's play is like a comedic Southern gothic on amphetamines), it's Babe who enacts the lion's share of hysteria, and from her first entrance here, Hoskins has decided to - or has been directed to - play the role as broadly as humanly possible. Yet whether the idea was Hoskins' or Benson's or some combination of the two barely matters. It was a sensationally smart move.

I'm most familiar with Hoskins through ingénue roles in such plays as You Can't Take It with You and It's a Wonderful Life, so I had no idea this sort of nutty, utterly inspired comic was lurking within her. Babe is in a constant emotional tizzy, and Hoskins embodies her mental state through wildly outsize gestures and contortions that suggest a woman simultaneously standing and curling into a ball; it's a risky interpretation enacted with fervent commitment. (In a scene involving Beth and the kitchen stove, Hoskins throws objects - and herself - around the stage with such reckless abandon that the performer completely disappears and only the character remains.)

Nothing that the actress does in Crimes of the Heart is predictable, and nothing that she says is predictable, either. Hoskins, to her great credit, appears completely unconcerned about looking or sounding ridiculous here, and her fearlessness comes through vocally as well as physically; Babe wails and whines and elongates her syllables past the breaking point, and it all feels right for her more-than-tightly-wound character.

Hoskins is wonderful as Babe, but if I could make one suggestion, it'd be that she pick up the pace a tad - the pauses within her monologues were a little lengthy. But barring some exceptional moments of overlapping dialogue, I'd make that suggestion regarding Crimes of the Heart as a whole. (On Sunday, Playcrafters' presentation lasted two hours and 45 minutes, and while Henley's piece is funny and touching and all, Long Day's Journey Into Night it ain't.)

Broc Nelson, Karrie McLaughlin, and Ashley Hoskins in Crimes of the Heart Benson's staging is oftentimes filled with vigor, and there are scenes in which the sisters' excited conversation tumbles over itself in a pitch-perfect rendering of sibling shorthand; the sequence when the women eagerly plan a night of card-playing and popcorn - giggling and chattering like 12-year-olds at a slumber party - is, hands down, its best. Too many of the scenes on Sunday, though, were undone by noticeably tardy cue pick-ups when the leads weren't bantering, and many of the line deliveries themselves were halting; it was clear that the supporting actors knew their dialogue, but they seemed rather hesitant about delivering it (although Broc Nelson and Lance Hanson both exude considerable sweetness, and Donna Weeks has a classic moment when her character changes pantyhose in the kitchen).

Jessica Nicol, though, is spot-on as the former (and potentially current) party girl Meg. Her cheery boisterousness occasionally giving way to dejected resignation, Nicol arrives on-stage in explosive fashion - frightening several theatre-goers in the process - and sustains her performance energy even during her silences; she's a constant thrill to watch, and pulls off her comedic asides, such as Meg's tendency to take first sips of whatever beverage she's retrieving for her sisters, with inspiring subtlety. And McLaughlin's Lenny is a completely endearing sad sack; the actress outlines her character's disappointment and frustration with vivid layers of comedic anguish and, when allowed to, radiates happiness with unfettered joy. (As McLaughlin has one of the most heart-melting smiles in area theatre, this can't happen nearly enough.)

Featuring a beauty of a set by Mary Jean Sedlock, Playcrafters' production, though a bit on the poky side, is almost indisputably charming. During her introductory announcements, after reminding us to turn off our pagers and cell phones (which, unfortunately, one idiot chose not to do), Benson encouraged us to audibly enjoy the show, saying, "Laughter burns off calories." And while you may not burn off a lot of them during Crimes of the Heart, I'm betting you'll rid yourself of at least a few, because as I understand it, the simple act of smiling also burns off calories.


For tickets, call (309) 762-0330.


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