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— In Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, Doc's young son Scott is going to the dentist for the first time. And just about everyone else in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, is having the adult equivalent.

Lenny MaGrath turns 30 today: her face is "getting all pinched up" and her hair's falling out. If it weren't for these horrors, she'd be brokenhearted that lightning struck and killed her favorite horse, Billy Boy, last night. Plus, no one's remembered her birthday, a crime to her heart; and, her grandfather had another stroke and has "blood vessels popping in his brain." Oh, almost forgot: Lenny's youngest sister Babe gutshot her husband Zachary because she didn't like his looks.

When Meg, the middle MaGrath sister back from a failed singing career in Hollywood and a stint in the loony bin, hears what Babe did, she says, "There're plenty of good sane reasons to shoot another person, and I'm sure that Babe had one."

As so often happens in Crimes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981, Henley will state a bizarre fact -- like when the MaGaraths' mother committed suicide, she hung herself and her favorite cat -- and you think hoo-wee! Loco in the gazebo. Then Henley offers an explanation, and things make a kind of sense. Babe, for example, was subject to violent spousal abuse (Crimes was one of the first plays to tackle this subject head-on). That doesn't justify shooting Zachary, but it certainly calls for a firm response.

Usually after an explanation, however, Henley complicates matters. Babe, for example, is jealous that, when her mother hung the cat, she got "national coverage," while Babe only got local attention.

New Village Arts is running Crimes in repertory with Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, and the parallels are striking: Crimes -- to borrow a headline Bill Owens wrote for the Reader years ago -- is "Southern fried Chekhov." Henley's three sisters hold nothing back. A pop-culture injunction of the early '80s was "get in touch with your feelings." And the sisters do, with all of them, no matter how giddy or grotesque.

Crimes comes at you like waves, in sets of three. The play's quirky rhythms, arias of feeling, and sudden, Chekhovian silences make it tricky to stage. To the credit of director Dana Case, and a top-notch New Village Arts cast, you aren't aware of difficulties; you watch life -- sometimes zany, sometimes tragic, often funny -- just brim over.

As the MaGraths, Kristianne Kurner, Jessica John, and Amanda Sitton craft completely different women, who are sisters nonetheless. Kurner's Lenny is an abandoned ship. Meg, whom John expertly keeps just this side of a whirlwind, tells her to be her own woman: "Have some parties. Go out with strange men." Sitton does impressive work as Babe, as innocent as she is gothic. Performing on a humble, lived-in set (and wearing appropriately drab, often tasteless, costumes), the trio builds wonderful emotional swirls.

The production boasts able supporting efforts by Francis Gercke as soft-spoken Doc (he isn't a doctor, just wanted to be, until Meg made him get up close and personal with Hurricane Camille); Wendy Waddell as meddling cousin Chick (imagine the opposite of a caregiver); and Daren Scott as neophyte lawyer Barnette Lloyd, fixated on a lifelong vendetta and an undying, at least to him, pound-cake moment with Babe.

I always thought a useful question for an actor studying a role would be: how would my character describe heaven? In Crimes, Babe envisions angelic choirs, sure. "But I imagine they have high, scary voices and little gold pointed fingers that are as sharp as blades, and you don't want to meet 'em all alone."

Babe and her sisters are hemmed in from all sides. And though they won't get all their wishes -- there aren't any pies in that Hazlehurst sky -- they may be graced with what Robert Frost called "a momentary stay against confusion."

***

Willy Loman wouldn't last ten seconds with this crowd. The real estate salesmen in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross don't die, like Willy, and maybe that's their curse. They exist in a Darwinian pressure-cooker: the goal is selling "highland" property in Florida, and the slimiest, not the fittest, survive -- for a while. These guys are so desensitized that savage, four-letter slurs just bounce off them, as if the words were understated truths they've known all along.

6th@Penn's production has some suspect choices: the weaker characters are just that but should be fighting for something too. Nonetheless, this is one of the theater's best efforts in years. Jonathan Dunn-Rankin's Shelly "the Machine" Levine and Jonathan Sachs's Ricky Roma bookend the piece as the once and current alpha male: Levine desperately crawling back into the light; slick Roma certain of his MVP status. And Dale Morris excels as Dave Moss, a frothing pit bull who chews up and spits out the two-locale set Morris designed.

The salesman's motto is ABC, "always be closing." At one point, Glengarry will sell you a bill of goods, proving -- one of Mamet's key points -- that sales pitches come in all kinds, and don't think you're immune.

Crimes of the Heart, by Beth Henley

New Village Arts, the Studio Space at Jazzercise, 2460 Impala Drive, Carlsbad

Directed by Dana Case; cast: Kristianne Kurner, Wendy Waddell, Francis Gercke, Jessica John, Amanda Sitton, Darren Scott; scenic design, Kristianne Kurner; costumes, Jessica John; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, Adam Brick

Playing through March 18; runs in repertory with Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. 760-433-3245.

Glengarry Glen Ross, by David Mamet

6th@Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest

Directed by Jerry Pilato; cast: Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, Ash Fulk, Dale Morris, Haig Koshkarian, Jonathan Sachs, Joey Georges, B.J. Peterson; scenic design, Morris; lighting, Mitchell Simkovski

Playing through March 18; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

619-688-9210

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