by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or too many times since its 1979 premiere, Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart has been performed as a gathering of Southern freaks to laugh at. Lordy, those three Magrath sisters -- they play the fool around the men folk, then wonder why their lives are so ridiculous.

In his director's notes for the Civic's Studio Theater production (through March 30), George Green talks about "avoiding stereotypes" and about his desire to bring out the "sincere" emotions of the "real people" whom Henley has created. Green doesn't want the good-hearted if wacky residents of Hazlehurst, Mississippi, dismissed as oddballs. And it's true that the Magrath women -- and their beaux and their mean-spirited cousin -- are more than just cartoons.

But the attempt to restore gravitas to a play that's been seen as mostly comic creates a serious imbalance: It's an overreaction, resulting in a show that's too heavy on the depressing details and too light on the comedy of bizarre contrasts that Henley created.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he opening -- a woman singing "Happy Birthday" to herself while staring at a single candle stuck in a cookie -- could be funny, could be sad. The early minutes of a play, after all, need to set the tone. Lenny (Chasity Kohlman) is turning 30. She's alone. There's been a loved one's death. A sheepish ex-lover (Doug Dawson) of another Magrath sister shows up. He's trying to scope out if Meg (Nancy Gasper) -- the one who's gone off to L.A. to pursue a singing career -- might still be available. But his interview with Lenny is played at a somber pace, with heads bowed and movements slow. Without any guidance from the actors in the early going that Crimes is going to be a black comedy, the scene comes across as simply gloomy.

If Kohlman displayed more exaggerated sadness about turning 30, then the audience would have a guide: Tonight we're going to see both moods, both seriousness and comedy. But there's no guidance given here -- with the uncomfortable result that for long stretches of Act One, this version of Crimes felt like a funeral.

The Magrath women, after all, confront Big Problems: murder, addiction, abuse, suicide, adultery, divorce, disappointment, loneliness, depression. Henley's achievement was to give those their weight, but in an absurd and amusing way. Again and again, Green's directing choices override the comic potential to emphasize the pathos and the seriousness instead -- making a black comedy mostly all black and without much comedy.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & aughing at depressing behavior: It's tricky balance to portray. While the Civic's Crimes mostly drags and misses too many opportunities for comedy, there are scattered moments of success as well. In Act Two, Kohlman pulls off a nice comic surprise when her character gets angry at Meg for eating some of her food and for wandering off with yet another man again. Just when she's about to yell at Meg for the adultery, Kohlman suddenly displaces her anger onto a nearby box of chocolates.

This production needs more moments like that. As Babe, for example, Ashley Cooper coyly encourages that cute lawyer (Luke Barats) who's defending her and who's pursuing a "lifelong vendetta" against their legal opponent. She offers reassurance, he's after vengeance, and the contrast is funny.

In general, the second act -- with all the running around trying to commit suicide, and with all the hilarity about a character (whom we never see) lapsing into a coma -- did a better job of mixing humor and pathos. Cooper's account of how close Babe has come to suicide was persuasive: She really does understand the depths of despair in which her mother was trapped. When Meg and her ex-lover meet again, Dawson glares over the top of a bourbon glass with a look that's a mixture of resentment and desire. Gasper and Cooper are effective in Meg and Babe's final bucking-up scene, holding out hope even though lately they've gone through a string of really bad days. With his nervous tics and standing around at oblique angles, Barats is usually effective whenever he's around the Magrath sister he's grown "fond" of.

Henley's tale of the Magrath women -- with their adulterous, violent, self-destructive, wandering ways -- combines serious commentary with laughable high jinks. But the current Civic show emphasizes the serious side too much, shortchanging the comedy. While there are scattered successful moments, this version of Crimes doesn't come near the difficult-to-attain peak of Henley's tragicomic outlook.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
  • or