While the plays of Beth Henley are well constructed and provide ample conflict and suspense, the playwright’s keen sense of place and character and her humorous yet compassionate view of the human predicament most typify her work. Her plays are set most often in her home state of Mississippi, where the innocent façade of friendly small-town life belies the horror and lunacy within. The dark side of humanity—the unpredictable, the irrational, the abnormal—attracts Henley, and her plays abound with stories of sickness, disease, and perversions. Ironically, however, Henley creates comedy out of the grotesque and shapes endearing characters out of eccentricity.
Usually, Henley’s plays depict the family in crisis joined by a close circle of friends and neighbors. From this basic situation, Henley makes her case for emotional survival. Guilt, despair, and loneliness are typical experiences of Henley’s failed heroines, but each continues to search for some measure of happiness and often finds it, if only momentarily, in the community of others. Whereas Henley doggedly exposes human frailties, in the final analysis, her view is a charitable one and her plays are optimistic, although they offer no lasting resolutions to her characters’ problems. The key to understanding Henley’s optimism lies in the laughter that her plays evoke; laughter functions to undercut that which is horrifying in life and to render it less horrifying.
Henley’s reputation as a major American playwright was established with three full-length plays, Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest, and The Wake of Jamey Foster. These plays also best illustrate the qualities that shape her unusual talent: a uniquely comic but sad voice, a distinguishing preoccupation with the bizarre, and a gift for working out variations on the themes of loneliness, guilt, loss, and renewal.
Crimes of the Heart
Set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, five years after Hurricane Camille, Crimes of the Heart is about three sisters—Lenny, Meg, and Babe MaGrath. The immediate crisis is that the youngest sister, Babe, has shot her husband, Zackery Botrelle, who is the richest and most powerful man in the community. The plot is fairly easily resolved when Zackery recovers and his threat to confine Babe in a mental institution is thwarted. This, however, hardly accounts for the sisters’ bizarre tale, which Henley unravels through exposition that is brilliantly interspersed with the main action.
Babe’s trouble is only one more disaster among many that the MaGrath women have experienced, beginning with their father’s desertion and their mother’s suicide (she hanged herself and the family’s cat). The mother’s death left the sisters under the supervision of their grandfather, and now the care of the sick old man has fallen to Lenny, the oldest sister, because Babe married young and Meg escaped to California to pursue a singing career. Growing up in the shadow of their mother’s inexplicable suicide and the notoriety it brought, each of the sisters suffers silently and alone. Meg was especially affected. Fearing to show pity as a sign of weakness, she tested herself as a youngster by staring at a book full of pictures of people with horrible skin...
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