The Yellowstone Repertory Theatre is ending its first season with the theatrical equivalent of a walk-off home run, an engaging and memorable production of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
On opening night of “Crimes of the Heart,” Craig Huisenga, one of the theater’s founding members along with Dina Brophy and Caitlin Hart, assured the audience that a second season is coming.
“We have every confidence that we will be back for another season,” Huisenga told the audience.
He was a bit vague about the details but added information in an email the next day. The company budgeted for 50 percent capacity at its shows and beat that goal, he said. Revenues went to pay actors and production staff instead of the founders or business staff, he said.
“Like any new business, we have some challenges as we look to the future,” Huisenga wrote. “Because of health issues and life changes, we need to expand the core of our ensemble and add to our board of directors as we figure out how to run the company. But our mission is the same — to bring professional theatre to Billings, create an ensemble of professional artists, and captivate and inspire our audiences. We have a lot of work to do, but to me the future looks bright for Yellowstone Rep.”
Let’s hope so. The theater’s three productions in the first season — “Doubt,” “The Glass Menagerie” and now “Crimes of the Heart” — set a high standard. The current production may be the best yet, even if the source material is the weakest.
Beth Henley’s first play, set in Mississippi, not only won the 1981 Pulitzer, it was turned into a movie with an all-star cast: Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Tess Harper. That all happened despite the play’s meandering plot, unresolved conflicts and uneven wavering between comedy and tragedy.
But it’s a big-hearted play about a troubled family with an absent father, a mother whose suicide gained national notoriety when she hanged her cat along with herself, and three daughters who all have problems of their own.
Lenny (Kelsey Reid Steffan) celebrates her lonely 30th birthday with a candle on a cookie, despondent that her shyness cost her a chance at love. Babe (DeLaney Kay Hardy) is just out on bail for having shot her husband because she didn’t like the way he looked. Meg (Casidee Riley Corcoran) went off to Hollywood to pursue a singing career but winds up getting mental care.
Yet somehow we care about them, and two scenes make the point. In one, a character goes off stage, apparently to commit suicide. Tension builds in the audience as other characters obliviously go about their business. We scarcely know these people and have no reason to care about them, but the tension is palpable. Despite ourselves, we root for her.
The second scene is when the sisters learn that their hospitalized grandfather has lapsed into a coma. For no good reason, they break into uproarious and infectious laughter, a ridiculous response that is nevertheless familiar to those of us who have had similar reactions to deaths in the family. The line between comedy and tragedy is thin indeed, and Henley walks that narrow line brilliantly.
None of this would work without a first-rate cast, and here the company’s production really excels. If — when — you go see this play, notice how Steffan, Hardy and Corcoran react when they aren’t speaking. Their expressions, their gestures, their reactions provide the punchlines for many of the jokes and punctuate the worst of the tragedies. Pretty soon, we forget all about those Mississippi accents.
Best of all, the three may not look like sisters, but they sure act like them, alternately furious but affectionate, critical but supportive, insensitive but inseparable. They know each other much too well: Lenny’s insecurity about her undersized ovary, Babe’s not-so-secret infidelity, Meg’s raw toughness, which she augmented as a child by looking at polio-stricken children on March of Dimes posters, then spending her own dimes on ice cream cones.
Urged by her cousin Chick (Wendy Kessler) to stop smoking for her health, Meg replies, “That’s what I like about it best, Chick. Taking a drag off of death.” Even the two smaller male roles have their demons: Doc (Chas Llewellyn), now married, is still drawn to Meg, and Babe’s lawyer (Richard Leeds) is working out a personal vendetta against Babe’s husband.
Altogether, the play is moving and absorbing, with the performances enhanced by Huisenga’s crisp direction and Mark Huisenga’s set design. The action all takes place in a kitchen set in 1974, complete with Philco refrigerator, Trimline phone, family photos and the famous “Grace” photograph of an elderly man praying over a loaf of bread.
The set shows that Yellowstone Repertory Theatre is as intent on getting the little things right as the big things. Here’s looking forward to another strong season.
“Crimes of the Heart” continues at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through June 23, with a 2 p.m. matinee on June 27. Tickets are $22 and $15.