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Crimes of the Heart Is Warm and Sweet in Texas Rep's Capable Hands

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The set-up:

Sisterhood blooms at Texas Repertory Theatre, strong and resilient as if made out of steel magnolias. Oops, sorry, that's a completely different southern-fried play. This sisterhood, a Pulitzer Prize-winner by Beth Henley, is populated by the MaGrath sisters -- three of them, like out of Chekhov -- who bond and bitch in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, as only sisters are allowed to do. Realized by TRT with the company's usual precision and accuracy, and sufficient warmth to bake a pecan pie, Crimes aims straight and strikes right into our heart.

The execution:

Pulitzer be damned, I'm not really sure this is a very good play, but as a picture of a family's love/hate, but mostly love, relationship, it's audience-satisfying, entertaining, and easy to sit through. And there's no better ensemble cast than this one assembled by director Steven Fenley, who knows exactly how to balance Henley's gothic against the comic.

Today is Lenny's 30th birthday, but everyone has forgotten. Caretaker for Granddad, who's raised the trio since their mother's suicide, frumpy Lenny (Lyndsay Sweeney) celebrates alone, wishing on a stale cookie with a candle stuck into it. Married sister Babe (Lauren Dolk), who has just shot her politician husband because she "didn't like his looks," moves in with Lenny while out on bail. Wild child Meg (Eva Laporte), supposedly living the high life and singing in L.A., returns home when she hears of Babe's arrest. The three MaGrath sisters collide and coalesce on this particular day, prodded by Doc (David Walker), Meg's former flame now married; Barnett (Zachary Lewis), Babe's young lawyer who's taken a professionally inappropriate shine to his client; and snooty cousin Chick "the Stick" (Julie Fontenot), who's all about propriety and what the neighbors will think of her relatives' trashy scandals.

Family secrets and sisterly dreams cascade through the comedy, interspersed with heartfelt emotion as each of them reveals her aches, unfulfilled desires and waylaid ambitions. With her hands all aflutter, Sweeney plays like dry kindling, just waiting for the spark of love to set her aflame. Laporte as Meg, with her rich laugh and swept back mane of hair, can ensnare anyone she wants, but life in Hollywood has been anything but golden to Meg. And Dolk brings a young girl's fear and innocence to the role of Babe, whose fabled life of political glamour and excitement has been tempered by an abusive husband.

Each of the sisters is damaged, but when they sit at the kitchen table and lay bare their souls, the play soars. They take heart from each other. Their comic troubles take on the stuff of high drama, although the outcome is never in doubt. The sweet optimism that runs through the comedy warms us like the best of summer's breezes.

The verdict:

From the first view of designer Trey Otis's faded kitchen-sink set with its rusty hot water heater and banging screen door, with laundry strewn over the second-hand washer, we know we're going to be in fine hands. Once the three leading ladies appear, there's no doubt. Under TRT's careful handling, Henley's southern gothic valentine to the ultimate strength and resiliency of women is sent sailing. It feels like being embraced by six powerful arms.

Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winner plays through April 7 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline. Purchase tickets online at www.texreptheatre.org or call 281-583-7573. $17.50 - $31.

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