By Michelle Trauring
For Joan Lyons, “Crimes of the Heart” was playing hard to get.
She first requested the rights to Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 2015. With the blessing of Michael Disher, it would be her directorial debut at Center Stage in Southampton.
Until the rights were denied. And Lyons was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was a very, very rare, deadly cancer. So I had a major operation in May of 2015, and it put me out of work for five months. I was on chemotherapy, the whole nine yards,” she recalled during a telephone interview last week. “I decided, you know, maybe the universe is telling me it’s not time for this show right now. I can’t get the rights for it, I was very ill, so Michael and I decided to co-direct something different together.”
Rejection aside — and miraculously cancer free — Lyons re-applied in 2016, only to be denied again. But still, she tried once more.
“Finally, finally, finally! I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting for this!’ And then, of course, you get the rights and you’re like, ‘Oh God, have I bitten off more than I can chew?’” she said uneasily. “Be careful what you wish for, because you start delving into the script and there’s so much more here than I anticipated.”
Set in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the play centers on the three Magrath sisters, who have reunited at their family home and are forced to face their pasts around the kitchen table — painted red for passion, and violence.
“There’s a richness to the script. It’s not even necessarily the story that made me chase it for years,” Lyons said. “It’s how it’s written and the connections that Henley makes between all the characters. Every time I think of the script, I discover something.”
The play deftly shifts between comedy and tragedy, which is a difficult line to navigate, Lyons explained, and she and her cast of six — Bonnie Grice, Tina Realmuto, Mark Strecker, Deyo Trowbridge, Josephine Wallace and Kristin Whiting — have been careful not to turn the characters into campy caricatures of themselves.
“You have to approach this as, these are real people with real, significant problems in their lives,” Lyons said. “We can laugh at it because it’s written that way, but as a director, I want to get into the nitty-gritty. I want to get into the dark places. I like the dark places to be dark. Sometimes I want to pull the comedy out a little bit, and back off, and push the drama a little bit more, and that’s a really hard balance because it’s written a certain way, and part of the tragic comedy is to make fun of the darkness.”
Many of the problems that the three Magrath women face are at the hands of the men in their lives, Lyons said, which has a certain resonance today, despite the action of the play unfolding in 1974.
“Back in the day, the kitchen was the women’s domain. I think these sisters, when they get back into this kitchen with each other, it becomes clear that all the problems they have circulate around men — men who tried to control them, who tried to shape their lives around how they wanted them to be,” Lyons said. “And today, with Weinstein and all these sexual harassment issues, things don’t really change very much. I think, on the surface, they seem to change and women are starting to get their voice and stand up, but these women in 1974, they didn’t stand up for themselves.”
Ultimately, “Crimes of the Heart” is a story about family, she said, “and the takeaway is that you can always change something. Things might not be perfect, but I think this will give people hope. This is an extremely difficult, dysfunctional family and they find a way to make it work — and I think that’s a great message.”
The overwhelming weight of the script seems far away from Lyons now, and the moment she received the rights even further. After 10 weeks of rehearsal — and almost three years of waiting — the director, and her cast, know it’s time.
“We’re actually at a point where we need an audience. You rehearse so much and it’s like, ‘Alright, we need more,’” she said. “But next week is opening week, and they are more than ready to go. I am more than ready to go.”
“Crimes of the Heart” will open on Friday, January 12, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, located at 25 Pond Lane in Southampton. Additional performances will run through Sunday, January 28, on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, please call (631) 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.