TURLOCK -- There's no doubt that the MaGrath sisters are more than a little nutty.
Painfully shy oldest sister Lenny is afraid to date, brash middle sister Meg is wildly promiscuous, and youngest sister Babe just shot her husband.
But the three main characters in the Southern dark comedy "Crimes of the Heart" are so sweet and well-intentioned that you can't help loving them just the same.
Directed by Jere O'Donnell, the remarkable production at California State University, Stanislaus' Studio Theatre is full of heart and celebrates the power of family in the face of horrendous circumstances.
Elizabeth Holzman (Lenny), Lyz Butticci (Meg) and Mia Carrick (Babe) display an amazing rapport and make you believe they really grew up together. You cry when they cry, laugh when they laugh and always root for them to succeed.
At Thursday's opening performance, the young audience members were so engaged that they applauded loudly when Lenny finally stood up for herself against someone who was steamrolling her. It's rare in this region to see audience members so involved in a production.
Beth Henley finished writing the play in 1978 and staged it in small theaters before moving it to Broadway in 1981, when it received the Pulitzer Prize. The show was a huge success and was made into a movie in 1986 featuring an all-star cast of Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek.
Set in Hazelhurst, Miss., the play follows the family members as they deal with Babe's criminal defense, their grandfather's stroke and unrelenting pressure from pushy relatives. Everything takes place in the grandfather's kitchen, beautifully outfitted in 1950s vintage style by set designer Eric Broadwater.
Holzman's Lenny is reserved and tense, always on guard for the next crisis and running around cleaning up everybody's messes. At first, she seems to be a pushover, but as the show goes on, you see that she has a huge reservoir of inner strength.
As Meg, Butticci is the opposite -- outwardly confident and certain, but a mushy mess inside. Her misbehavior is more to distract herself from her own pain than to hurt anybody.
Waifish, pretty Carrick seems the most fragile of the sisters as Babe. She just wants to love and be loved and can't tolerate any meanness. She isn't afraid to fight back when she needs to and will do what it takes to get the job done.
Delightful Kelly Ruelas provides comic relief as annoying, pretentious cousin Chick, while Ricky Gonzalez and Eric Braojos stay mostly in the background as the lone male characters. Handsome, soft-spoken Gonzalez reminds Meg of happier times when they had a passionate romance. Braojos is determined and fearless as Babe's lawyer, Barnett.
Costume designer Meghan Lydon outfits the players in costumes that fit their personalities, with Lenny in bland, frumpy clothing and Meg in flashier attire.
The combination of young, excited talent and an engrossing story makes this show one not to miss.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2313.