The Magrath sisters are having a really bad day.
Meg has lost her singing voice, Babe has shot her husband, and nobody seems to have remembered that it’s Lenny’s 30th birthday. Plus, Old Granddaddy, who raised the trio, is in the hospital, most likely on his deathbed.
How they reconcile with each other and deal with these crises is the heart and soul of Beth Henley’s dramedy “Crimes of the Heart,” which opened Penobscot Theatre Company’s 50th season on Saturday at the Bangor Opera House.
Directed by Julie Arnold Lisnet, it is a delightful and triumphant start to a slate of plays designed to lure people back to live theater after the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic. Lisnet, who directed the fabulous “Becoming Dr. Ruth” in May 2022, and her cast of six characters create a tight ensemble that leaves theatergoers crying tears of laughter and sorrow. “Crimes of the Heart” is a perfect followup to last season’s closing show, “Mary Poppins, the Broadway Musical,” which sold out most performances and was truly supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Henley’s play is similar in tone and shares the theme of the importance of family with the musical. The show was first produced in 1979 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and moved to New York City the following year.
Henley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981 for the play. Penobscot Theatre Company previously produced the show in 1990 during founder George Vafiadis’ final season with the company.
Set in the late 1970s in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in Old Granddaddy’s kitchen, the Magrath sisters — Lenny (Christie L. Robinson), Meg (Stephanie Colavito) and Babe (Lily Steven) — bring up a childhood slight when one of them got more jingle bells on her petticoat than the others.
They also get into a fight over Lenny’s one and only birthday present, a box of cheap chocolates. In other words, Henley’s dialogue is stunningly realistic when it comes to sibling rivalries.
Robinson, who heads the drama department at Hermon High School, gives Lenny, the oldest sister, a sense of overwhelming responsibility for the family. Lenny is the one who has put her love life on hold to care for their aging grandfather and fend off harsh criticism from first cousin Chick Boyle (Jenny Hart), who lives next door. Robinson beautifully reveals Lenny’s fierceness when Chick goes a little too far in her opinions about Meg’s lifestyle.
Colavito, who attended the theater company’s Dramatic Academy growing up, is perfect as the fiery Meg, whose bravado hides her insecurities. She arrives in the Magrath kitchen like a tornado, upending Lenny’s routine and eating as if she hasn’t had a meal in a month of Sundays. The actress perfectly balances every side of Meg as she slowly reveals the truth about the middle sister’s failed career in Hollywood and reconnects with an old flame, Doc Porter (Jonathan Berry).
As Babe Botrelle, her married name, Steven creates a delicate youngest child haunted by her mother’s death. Babe has always been the compliant sister, marrying well but refusing to share how unhappy she is until after she pulls the trigger. Steven gives the character an ethereal quality that she wears like an invisible shroud.
Hart, who gave a devastating performance as a manipulative mother last season in “Clarkston,” is equally overbearing as Chick but in a hysterically funny way. Every family has one nosy relative who criticizes and judges the actions of others and Hart captures that person with joy and verve.
The two male characters in this show can sometimes get short changed as they have little time onstage but Lisnet makes them central to the unfolding plotline. Josh Flanagan, who was in last year’s holiday show, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” gives Babe’s lawyer, Barnette Lloyd, a big dose of Southern charm. Flanagan wears his passion for his client on the sleeve of his white, summer suit in an alluring performance.
Seeing Penobscot Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Berry play Doc Porter is a bonus for season ticket holders. The actor makes the most of his time on stage as he seeks closure on his tumultuous relationship with Meg. Berry is so appealing as Doc that it’s hard to understand how Meg could have left him in a hurricane.
Chez Cherry’s set and Reed Davis’ props design take theatergoers over 50 back to their grandmothers’ kitchens with a gas stove, wooden kitchen matches, a refrigerator far from the sink and stove, a teal dial phone and an all-too-familiar kitchen table and chairs with red vinyl seats and backs. It is a perfect setting for Henley’s family.
Perfectly complementing Cherry and Davis’ work are costume designer Michelle Handley, lighting designer Rachel Levy and sound designer Chris Duff. Duff’s sounds from outside the home, including birds singing, adds to the feeling that the audience is peering over a neighbor’s fence to see into the lives of the Magrath sisters.
“Crimes of the Heart” is a crowd pleaser that should set Penobscot Theatre Company off on the road to a successful second half of its first century. Suicide is a topic discussed by the play’s characters, which might be difficult for some theatergoers to see on stage but the subject is handled humanely.
“Crimes of the Heart” runs through Sept. 24 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St. For information, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 207-942-3333.