Crimes of the Heart Summary

Beth Henley

Crimes of the Heart

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Crimes of the Heart Summary

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Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley is a tragic comedy for the stage. The play, set in a small town in Mississippi, takes place in 1978, chronicling the survival of three sisters. They face crisis after crisis, and this play describes how they make it through. Tragedy after tragedy piles up for Henley’s characters, amidst a dark sense of humor in this three-act play. Henley’s play co-won the Great American Play Contest of the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville award for the annual festival for New American Plays in 1977–1978. The play was produced in February of 1979 during the festival. During the next two years, Crimes of the Heart was performed in many regional theaters.

From regional theaters to the Manhattan Theatre Club for an off-Broadway production, Crimes of the Heart ran for thirty-two performances, selling out the theater for the entire limited run. In 1981, it premiered on Broadway, and had already won the Pulitzer Prize. Other awards rolled in, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play and a Guggenheim Award. Crimes of the Heart also pulled in a Tony nomination. On Broadway, the play had a 535-performance run before launching regional productions throughout the continental United States and in London.

Act One begins with Lenny McGrath and her cousin Chick. Chick is upset about the news, though the audience doesn’t learn what that news is yet. It’s Lenny’s birthday, so Chick gives her a present, but not before highlighting those elements of Lenny’s family that displease her. Chick leaves to pick up Babe, Lenny’s younger sister, and Doc Porter arrives. Doc is the ex-boyfriend of Lenny’s older sister, Meg. He tells Lenny that her childhood horse died from a lightning strike, and then he leaves again.

The phone rings, and when Lenny answers, she learns that Zackery, Babe’s husband, is in the hospital. Meg shows up and talks with Lenny—the two reveal that Zackery is in the hospital because Babe shot him there—and she is in jail. Chick returns with Babe, then leaves with Lenny on an emergency. Meg and Babe talk about their mother’s suicide, and Babe’s shooting of her husband. They discuss Lenny’s difficulties in finding a relationship, and then remember that it’s her birthday and decide to order a cake. Babe’s lawyer, Barnette, arrives.

As it turns out, Zackery had a violently abusive streak, and Babe was protecting Willie Jay. Willie is a fifteen-year-old African American boy. He and Babe had been engaged in an affair. Zackery found out and tried to push Willie down the porch steps, so Babe shot him. Babe agrees to work with Barnette.

Act two takes over on the evening of that same day. Barnette and Babe are discussing her case when Zackery calls claiming he has damaging evidence. Barnette leaves to meet Zackery at the hospital, but not before informing Babe that Zack ruined his father’s life. As Barnette is leaving, Lenny returns, and she argues with Meg. She and Babe discuss a hurricane in Biloxi, which injured Doc. According to many, he wouldn’t have been injured if Meg hadn’t refused to evacuate.

When Meg returns with a bottle of bourbon, the three sisters decide to look through old photo albums and play cards. Doc calls, and Meg invites him over, which launches another argument between the three sisters. Lenny leaves the room followed by Babe, who hopes to comfort her. Doc arrives, and he and Meg drink together. Meg tells him that while she was in Los Angeles trying to become a singer, she spent time in the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. They leave together to look at the moon.

Barnette returns, and Babe answers the door. He tells her that Zack’s sister hired a detective to follow Babe and take pictures of her with Willie Jay. At this moment, Lenny comes downstairs to reveal that their grandfather, whom she had been caring for, suffered yet another stroke at the hospital.

Act three begins the next morning. Lenny’s grandfather is not likely to live, and she, Babe, and Chick decide to divide a list of people they need to notify. Meg returns shortly after to learn about their grandfather. Meg and Babe convince Lenny to call Charlie, a man she’d been seeing, to rekindle their relationship; Lenny complies. While Lenny is out of the room, Babe shows Meg the photographs of her and Willie Jay.

In a sweep of luck, Barnette returns to say that he’s managed to find enough skeletons in Zack’s closet to get him to settle out of court. Both parties must agree not to expose the other’s indiscretions as part of the settlement; another part of the arrangement involves Willie Jay leaving to live in the North for his safety. Barnette leaves, as does Meg, the latter to pick up Lenny’s birthday cake.

Lenny, who was unable to reach Charlie, returns, as does Chick. Chick insults Meg for going with Doc, and Lenny tells her to leave. Zackery calls then and threatens to commit Babe to a mental institution. She calls his bluff despite being disturbed by it. Lenny tries to call Charlie again; Babe finds some rope in a drawer and takes it upstairs. After finally reaching Charlie, and with a date planned for that evening, Lenny seeks out her sister Babe, who is trying to take her own life. Meg finds her and stops her, comforting her. The three sisters finally celebrate Lenny’s birthday.