Crimes of the Heart is a character study of three sisters, each attempting to discover her own identity. They collectively deal with family problems and individual challenges. The bizarre yet believable characters in Henley’s Southern gothic comedy struggle to deal with despair, loneliness, and failure. Black humor enables the MaGrath sisters to find meaning and happiness in life, even if it is only momentary.
The sisters were abandoned by their father and then abandoned again when their mother hanged herself, along with her cat. The oldest sister, Lenny, has sacrificed her life to care for the grandfather who raised them. Her loneliness is deepened by her belief that she is undesirable because she cannot conceive. Meg, the totally self-centered middle sister, ran away to Hollywood but has since given up her dream of becoming a star. They are reunited in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, because the youngest sister, Babe, has shot her husband and is facing trial. The sisters confront their pasts in ways that enable them to redefine their own identities as stronger, independent women.
When their grandfather slips into a coma, Lenny finally realizes that she does not have to spend her life as a lonely spinster. Meg is invited out by the lover whom she abandoned in the devastation of Hurricane Camille, a metaphor for the disaster of the sisters’ past lives. When he does not beg her to run away with him, she realizes that she can love unconditionally. Babe brings understanding to the sisters and self-realization to herself. She shot her husband because he discovered her affair with a fifteen-year-old black boy. Considering suicide, she realizes she actually wanted her husband, not herself, to die. She also realizes that her mother did not want to die and that her mother killed the cat not because she hated it but because she was afraid to face death alone. Babe’s lawyer, motivated beyond his natural abilities by a personal vendetta, establishes that Babe was a battered wife and that it is in everyone’s best interest not to charge her with any crime. As the play ends, the three sisters are, for the moment, laughing.
The MaGrath sisters deal with crises as required by their identities as faded Southern gentry. No longer wealthy, the family still values manners, education, and appearances. With the ugly business of the past put more or less to right, the sisters, in their solidarity, uphold, or perhaps demolish, their identities as Southern ladies.
It is Lenny’s thirtieth birthday. While trying unsuccessfully to light a small candle on a cookie, she is interrupted by Cousin Chick, who is scandalized by the news that Babe has been charged with shooting her husband Zachery. Doc Porter stops in with some pecans for Lenny and the sad news that her horse Billy Boy was killed by lightning the night before. Meg arrives home, and the two sisters commiserate over all the depressing news—their age, Old Granddaddy being in the hospital, Billy Boy’s death, the collapse of Meg’s singing career, and Babe’s situation.
Chick brings Babe home from jail, annoyed that Babe will not reveal why she shot Zachery. When Chick and Lenny leave, Meg and Babe discuss Lenny’s lonely life since breaking up with Charlie from Memphis rather than informing him of her shrunken ovary. They decide to order a huge birthday cake. The Babe’s lawyer Barnette arrives, but Babe is reluctant to meet with him and disappears. Barnette reveals to Meg that he has a personal vendetta against Zachery and plans to expose him as a criminal and wife abuser.
After Barnette leaves, Babe confesses to Meg that she has been having an affair with fifteen-year-old Willie Jay, the African American son of her laundry woman. Zachery surprised them and threw Willie Jay out. Babe was so upset that she got Zachery’s gun with the plan to kill herself, but the thought of her mother’s suicide led her to realize that she wanted to kill Zachery and not herself. Later that evening Babe tells...
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