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...
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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 Barnette how she shot Zachery, and he plans a defense, but Zachery wants to show Barnette incriminating evidence he has that will convict Babe.
After visiting Old Granddaddy in the hospital with Meg, Lenny is furious at the lies Meg has told him about her successful career as a singer and film star. She is jealous of Meg because Meg has always got what she wanted, but Babe defends Meg’s behavior because Meg had to deal with the shock of finding their mother and the cat dead. They recall the events of Hurricane Camille, when Meg refused to evacuate and told Doc she would marry him if he stayed with her. He stayed; then, the roof fell in and crushed his leg.
When she returns from the hospital, Meg defends her lies to Old Granddaddy, claiming she was just...
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Crimes of the Heart, Henley’s best-known and most widely produced play, concerns the three adult Magrath sisters. As it is a family play, it is set in the kitchen of Granddaddy Magrath’s home in the small town of Hazelhurst, Mississippi. The sisters had come to live in the house when they were young because their father had deserted their mother. The house also holds the tragic memory of their mother committing suicide by hanging herself in the basement. In a darkly grotesque act, the mother had also hanged her old cat beside her.
The eldest sister, Lenny, now lives in the house and cares for her dying grandfather. The middle sister, Meg, has gone to California to pursue a singing career, and the youngest sister, Babe, has married the most prominent man in Hazelhurst. The sisters reunite after Babe shoots and seriously wounds her husband because, she claims, she does not like his looks. There is tension among the sisters, a tension exacerbated by their cousin, Chick, who wants to make all the family decisions concerning the sickly grandfather.
Lenny is having difficulty handling the stress. Her ongoing problem is that she has a shrunken ovary and cannot have children. Because of this malady she turned away from her only love, Charlie. Babe, on the other hand, married early, but she now despises her husband and has had an affair with Willie Ray, a teenage African American boy. Meg, it is revealed, has failed in her singing career...
(The entire section is 531 words.)