Over three decades ago, playwright Beth Henley completed her play Crimes of the Heart. Two years later, it debuted in New York City. A year later, Henley won the Pulitzer Prize. Six years after that, Henley wrote the film version's screenplay, earning an Academy Award nomination.
Now, Henley is revisiting her biggest work in a hands-on way: assisting students at Loyola Marymount University, where she serves as a professor, in their production of the show, bowing tonight. (In full disclosure, this writer is also an LMU student.)
While the production is meant to be a teaching tool for the students, the director of the production, Professor Ron Marasco, says the greatest beneficiary of Henley's involvement may be Henley herself.
"One night, we were in the rehearsal room late, having coffee and hanging out," Marasco recalls. "We were laughing, and Beth just said, 'Being here, I feel like I just so love theater again.'"
The choice to do this play was long in development for Marasco and Henley. When time, scheduling and talent all finally aligned, Henley became heavily involved in the casting and rehearsal processes.
"In all honesty, I was, well, not dreading it, but not looking forward to it," Henley says. "But then, once I got involved with Ron and this cast and saw how willing they were and the lengths they were willing to go to explore, I just got very, very excited."
The play is a Southern-fried "slice of life," as Marasco calls it, about three sisters who reunite in their home town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi after one of them shoots her abusive husband. The director and writer paid a summer visit to Hazelhurst, which, says Marasco, a New Jersey native, went a long way to helping him understand the South's "genuineness."
"People have a kind of stereotypical idea of what the place is," Henley says of Hazelhurst. "But there's so much more texture and complexity. It's hard to explain unless you see it, or you feel it."
Originally, Henley wrote the characters as twenty-somethings, but since then they've been cast in many productions (and in the film) as thirty-somethings. The LMU production's use of college-aged actors has taken the characters back to Henley's original vision.
"It's nice knowing that you can kind of relate to their age and what's going on in their lives," says Maddie Dial, a Loyola Marymount senior playing the role of Babe in the production. "I'm playing a 24-year-old girl, and I'm 21, so it makes sense."
"These aren't quite adults," Henley says of the characters. "They don't have parents, but they're not quite adults. I think that part of the story is sold really well with these young actors."
Henley freely admits she's been changing a line or two here and there for the production. However, for the others involved, the best boon of having Henley in the room has been in the character work.
"By having Beth there, I think the play comes a little bit more to life," Marasco says. "The heart that created it is beating in the room with us. So I don't know if it changes as much as it becomes more fully what it is."
Dial offered the example of the act two opening, when her character eats oatmeal at night. She was puzzled by the juxtaposition of time and breakfast food -- that is, until Henley was able to explain. "Beth said, 'Well, it's her comfort food,'" Dial recalls. "I would never have come up with that on my own. It's great that she's there to give that character insight you wouldn't get to on your own."
Henley did recently head to New York City to open a production of her play The Jacksonian, which had its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse here last year. But before that, at a brunch during the rehearsal process, she offered the company details about the real people from her hometown used as the basis for the Crimes of the Heart characters.
"She guides you in the right direction without being overbearing," says Keeley Miller, a Loyola Marymount junior playing Chick in the production. "It's an experience that not many college actors get to have -- or professional actors, even."
Crimes of the Heart performs at the Barnelle Theatre at Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Dr., Westchester; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Oct. 27, 8 p.m.; Thurs., Oct. 31, 8 p.m.; through Nov. 2. (310) 338-5466.
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