Successful as both a playwright and a screenwriter, Beth Henley was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and she drew upon her Southern background for locales and characters in her early plays. Crimes of the Heart was first produced at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, where it won an award in the Great American Play Contest. It then traveled to New York, where it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the Best New American Play and the Pulitzer Prize in drama, as well as receiving a Tony nomination. Henley’s 1986 screenplay adaptation of the play was nominated for an Academy Award.
A three-act play confined to one setting and one twenty-four-hour period, Crimes of the Heart is a black comedy, with uproarious moments that teeter on the brink of tragedy. Henley stated in an interview that her play is loosely based on Anton Chekhov’s Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901; revised pb. 1904; The Three Sisters, 1920), a play that she admires. There are analogies to be made between each play’s portrayal of three sisters and their discontent, but the works’ plots are vastly different. In Henley’s play, there are no long scenes and no philosophical discussions of where humanity is headed. Instead, the acts are structured in brief dialogues between two or three characters, with flashes of sibling rivalry as well as of affection. The dialgues recount events of the past and reveal actions of the present. The play’s ending is ambiguous: Loose ends are not neatly tied up, and questions remain. There is a final moment of togetherness among the three sisters eating birthday cake, but they seem to recognize that it is only a moment.
The characters are eccentric but, in Henley’s skillful hand, believable and charming. The “crimes” of the Magrath sisters are involved partly with their sexual relationships and partly with their history. Lenny is obsessed with her thirtieth birthday, feeling that she is getting old and will never be loved by a man. She is tortured by the knowledge...
(The entire section is 840 words.)