Something to think about: ‘Crimes of the Heart’

The three actresses who play the Magrath Sisters in the American Stage production of Crimes of the Heart had never met one another before starting work on the show.

Yet Rita Cole, A.J. Baldwin and Shelby Ronea formed a sisterly bond as they shared, night after night and matinee after matinee, the dysfunctional dynamics of Lenny, Meg and Babe, playwright Beth Henley’s boldly imperfect Mississippi siblings. Crimes of the Heart runs through Feb. 5 at the downtown St. Pete theater.

“Rita reminded me so much of my mom,” Ronea says. “And my mom is my best friend. So I was able to really see her as the woman that she is. And I’d sat next to A.J. during the first rehearsals, and we were already joking between each other.”

Another performer was initially to play Babe, the youngest and arguably least sympathetic of the trio, and went through nearly all of the labor-intensive rehearsal process. Yet she left the production and was replaced by Ronea, who’d been cast in another, non-Magrath role (that part was re-cast, too).

Which meant that the “new” Babe was late to the all-in-the-family bonding party. “I was a little nervous, but the girls were so helpful,” Ronea says. “And I guess because I was already in the room, it was just an easy transition.”

Cole, whose Lenny is the eldest – and, again arguably, the most mature – found a parallel between fiction and fact. “I am in real life the oldest sister to two sisters,” she says. “And A.J. shared with me that she is in the middle of her siblings.

“And Shelby is an only child; she’s still so youthful and vibrant. Sharing that was the moment for me that said ‘This is going to work.’ It’s not hard to access, for us, and we have things that we can draw from to help mold our relationships.”

As Babe, Meg and Lenny. Photo: American Stage.

All three are regional theater actors; they go where the work takes them. While Ronea is based in Tampa, and Cole has homes in Miami and Atlanta, Baldwin is the Florida outlier – an Alabama native, she currently calls Cincinnati, Ohio home.

Baldwin’s first produced play, The Twunny Fo’, recently had its world premiere at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati. She co-starred in it, too. “You’ve got to do everything in this business,” laughs the nascent playwright, who describes The Twunny Fo’ as a comedy that “deals with gentrification and the commodification of Black women in the workforce.”

League of Cincy Theatres called the show “A must see.”

“I do love doing classical work,” Baldwin reports, “Shakespeare and things like that. But I love doing comedies. Dramadies I find more approachable in a way, because I’m a hard critic for a comedy. If it’s not funny, I’ll tell you ‘that’s not funny.’

“But I do love being a clown when I get those moments … if I can clown and get away with it, that’s what I love to do.”

Although Henley’s play, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama, tackles some serious subject matter – none of the sisters are telling the total truth – it is, in fact, laced with humor, most of it dark, all of it placed there to create a working tension-and-release dynamic between the sisters.

Crimes of the Heart was written for, and is usually performed by, an all-white cast. American Stage and director Elizabeth Margolius cast their version with African-American actors.

Which uproots several plot points of Henley’s story and turns them on their heads (in particular, Babe’s conversation with Meg, confessing her sexual antics with a neighborhood teen, Willy Jay. No spoilers here.)

Said Ronea: “At the audition, I didn’t see ‘Black women’ reading with me. Then ‘how do I approach this?’ definitely popped up in the back of my mind.

“I wanted to make sure I took care of the mental aspect of Babe. To be a Black woman, and to go through the things that she goes through, I want people to understand that Babe is a victim of her environment, and she was just doing what she could. And so I hope that people take that away.”

During Babe’s Willy Jay monologue, she adds, “I see audience members shift in their seats. And I think that’s a good thing. I think being uncomfortable births growth.”

Baldwin feels it, too. “I hope that the uncomfortableness of the play resonates a little more deeply within the white audience members. Yes, there is universality to the piece, where it (race) doesn’t really matter about certain things – and I’m grateful to have the opportunity – but there are certain moments where it’s like ‘Umm, that’s a little itchy.’”

Still, she says, “Everyone loves to be entertained, right? Especially after big, bad, sad pandemic, we want to laugh. But we’re not doing our jobs, I believe, if we don’t give you something to think about.”

Leave it to Cole, ever the steadfast “elder sister,” to see things in terms of a bigger picture.

“I’ve been doing plays about race for a long time now, so there’s a part of me that’s a little bit acclimated to the uncomfortableness and all that stuff,” she explains. “When I read this play, what stood out the most (was) I wanted people to be uncomfortable with the roles they play as a sibling. To think about how often do you commit a crime of the heart against your sister, against your brother, against your mother and father? And you don’t even think about it.

“When I talk to the audience members after the show, I can see the tears in their eyes, and they always want to talk about ‘I have a sister and I’m going to go home and call her.’ That’s the conversation I’m mostly having with people.

“Times are hard now. This world has gone crazy. And family is becoming more important. And I see how distant families are across the board – white people, Black people, everybody.”

For Crimes of the Heart info and tickets, click here.

Photo by Bill DeYoung















Bill DeYoung

Catalyst Senior Writer and Editor Bill DeYoung was a St. Petersburg Times correspondent at the age of 17. He went on to a 30-year career at newspapers in Florida and Georgia. He is the author of "Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down," "Phil Gernhard Record Man," "I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews," "Vintage St. Pete: The Golden Age of Tourism - and More" and "Vintage St. Pete Volume II: Legends, Locations, Lifestyles."

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