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Simon says …there are two plays not to miss

By Staff | Dec 11, 2009

The area is gifted right now with two fine dramas, but both close on Dec. 19th, so get your tickets soon. One is down at The Naples Players, “Crimes of the Heart,” and the other is in Fort Myers at The Alliance for the Arts, “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

Both are plays about families. One family, set in the deep South, is a notch above full Redneck-hood. The other is about three generations of a deeply knit blue-collar Italian family. I highly recommend both productions but both play for just two more weekends.

The Naples Players, those amazingly adept amateurs, have a hit down at the Sugden Theater. They obviously picked the right play. The 1979 co-winner of Actors Theater in Louisville’s Great American Play Contest, “Crimes of the Heart” is by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mississippi-born Beth Henley.

I’ve seen it at least three times, and it just doesn’t get old. “Crimes of the Heart” is so good, so skillfully wrought, that it is as relevant today as it was back when it opened in New York in 1980. No wonder Henley won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Critic’s Circle Award for it in 1981.

It’s a play about three sisters in a small town in Mississippi – as different from each other as you may well be from your own siblings. It’s really a delight to sit there while the play unfolds and start to wonder ‘Could any of this have ever happened in my own family?’

Babe, the main protagonist, has shot her husband. She isn’t insane, although flaky enough to make a jury consider it. Babe tells her sisters why she shot him: “Because I just didn’t like the way he looked.”

Each of the other sisters has a unique story to tell. Laughs abound, and there is that genuine poignancy that few playwrights can capture as well as Beth Henley.

The older sister, Lenny, a spinster – stuck with taking care of Old Grand-daddy – is very ably played by Mai Puccio. Lenny has her stories, too. One is of almost finding someone to love. But there was something found as a teenager – her mother dead from hanging, along with the family’s yellow cat, hanging too. Babe tells us that she understood. “Mother just didn’t want to go alone.”

Then there’s Meg, the hot-blooded sister, a honky-tonk singer who has had almost as many men as the number of songs she knows by heart. She flies in from Hollywood when the news reaches her of Babe’s expedition into front page news. Meg is played beautifully by Victoria Diebler. Diebler has appeared in other major productions for the Naples Players. She breaks into song once in the play and I sensed we all could listen to her sing for more than a couple of hours any night.

The fatuous cousin, Chick Boyle, ebulliently acted by Ellen Cooper gives the play comic relief. She’s got that noisy, insensitivity gift. The opening scene of her changing panty hose is as good a bit of physical humor as I’ve seen this season. There is another sweet piece of business: when Babe doesn’t want to speak to her wounded husband, she opens the refrigerator freezer door and puts the phone base in, slams the door and walks away, the handset dangling down, spinning.

That kind of staging brilliance is because of Director Annie Rosemond whose sure hand was present all evening. The pacing is perfect.

I urge you to drive down to Naples. This production by The Naples Players is right on.

“Crimes of the Heart” only plays until Friday, Dec. 19. The box office hours are Monday through Friday, 10-4, Saturday, 10-1. The number is (239) 263-7990

“Over the River and Into the Woods” at Theatre Conspiracy

This is a play that I find utterly charming. It’s the third time I’ve seen it too and, somehow, this one down at Theatre Conspiracy – which has moved back to it’s original home, the Foulds Theater at Alliance for the Arts – is my favorite.

It’s a play about an Italian family, three generations of them. The central figure is Nick Cristano, brilliantly played by Christopher Brent – a 29-year-old grandson with not one set of grandparents, but two. Hence, the audience gets the full brunt of Nick’s decision to leave, to take a promotion and move from Hoboken to Seattle when one of the grandmothers asks, “Where is Seattle?” and her husband replies, “Not in the little Washington, but the big Washington far away.”

The play was written by Joe DePietro, the man who wrote the book and lyrics for “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” If that play was your cup of tea, this one will be your glass of the finest Italian wine. Just be careful you don’t look Grandma Aida Gianelli in the eye, or she’ll say to you as she says to Nick, maybe six times in the play (violating the comedian’s rule of three), “You look hungry. Let me feed you. Mangia! Mangia!”

I won’t tell you all the plot twists and turns, but I will tell you that I was enthralled, gripped, made to shed a few tears, and totally enveloped in all that happened to this family.

DePietro writes funny lines. Almost a clich to say he is an Italian Neil Simon. The lines aren’t just funny, there is enormous reality in the play, and a flood of poignancy, a quality very important to me as I judge a play and its production.

“Over the River and Through the Woods” is heart-warming, without being sickly sentimental. Each character faces some hard decisions. The family is supported in the depth of its dilemmas by the ongoing cry of “Tengo Familia” – in short, family is all a cry I think more of us need to hear.

This is definitely a must-see play. It shows only Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Dec.10, 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19 at 8 p.m., with one matinee, Saturday, the 12th, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22. The box office number is (239) 936-3239