Pre-Show Preparation, Questions for Discussion, and Activities

Note to Educators: Use the following assignments, questions, and activities to introduce your students to Crimes of the Heart and its intellectual and artistic origins, context, and themes, as well as to engage their imaginations and creativity before they see the production.
  1. Crimes of the Heart:  Web Site Basics.  Share the various interviews, articles and information found on McCarter's Crimes of the Heart web site with your students—preferably by reading them aloud as a class or in small groups—to provide an intellectual and creative context for McCarter Theatre’s production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

  2. Exploring Crimes of the Heart Before the Performance.  Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart was the playwright’s first full-length play, which amazingly won both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and stands as a classic of American drama today.  It features Henley’s own distinctive brand of Southern Gothic screwball comedy, and portrays three sisters trapped in small-town life and lies and faced with super-sized family crises, which they contend with both ridiculously and touchingly.
The activities and questions for discussion immediately below are designed for teachers able to incorporate either the full or Act One reading of Crimes of the Heart into their pre-performance curriculum. 
  1. Have your students read the full text or Act One of Crimes of the Heart (preferably aloud as a class).
  2. After the reading, ask your students to discuss the given circumstances of the play (i.e., the facts of the world of the play, including the specific conditions of place and time, the characters and their relationships to one another, all detectable information in their back-stories, and any details of what has happened before the action of the play has begun).  Also, ask your students what each character’s action (what the character wants either consciously or subconsciously) and motivation (the reason why he or she wants what he or she wants) is.  And finally, talk about the conflicts (those persons or things that stand in the way of the character getting what he wants) the characters face in pursuit of their actions.
  3. Then have students brainstorm a list of themes central to the play. [These might include: homecoming; sibling rivalry and familial discord; the burden of secrets and family history; the taboo of suicide/mental illness; kinship and consolation through the family bond; individual choice and freedom in the face of familial and social expectations; the oppression of gender/social roles and acts of female assertion and rebellion; loneliness and the varying layers and causes of heart break; the insularity and suffocative nature of small-town life, etc.] Ask your students to recall and make connections to their own lives, someone else’s life, or to other plays or works of literature they have read or studied with themes similar to those of Crimes of the Heart.
  4. If students read only the first act of the play, ask them what they think will happen in the second and third acts of Crimes of the Heart.
  1. In Context:  Crimes of the Heart, Playwright Beth Henley, and This Production.  To prepare your students for Crimes of the Heart and to deepen their level of understanding of and appreciation for  the play and its context, the dramatic individuality and distinctive voice of Beth Henley, and to introduce them to McCarter’s production team, have students research, either in groups or individually, the following topics:
    • Beth Henley
    • Crimes of the Heart (overview)
    • Production history of Crimes of the Heart
    • Pulitzer Prize (general) for Drama (specific)
    • Dark Comedy
    • Southern Gothic
    • Kitchen sink drama
    • Hazlehurst, Mississippi
    • Hurricane Camille
    • Historical and cultural events in Mississippi in the early 1970s
    • Other plays by Beth Henley
      • The Miss Firecracker Contest
      • Am I Blue
      • Ridiculous Fraud
    • Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters  (and Crimes of the Heart comparison)
    • Liesl Tommy (director)
    • Andromache Chalfant (set designer)
    • Marion Williams (costume designer) and Ann G. Wrightson (lighting designer)
Have students teach one another about their individual or group topics via oral and illustrated (i.e., posters or PowerPoint) reports.  Following the presentations ask your students to reflect upon their research process and discoveries.
  1. Scene Study:  Acting from the HeartTo prepare their minds, ears, and funny bones for the pleasures and challenges of Beth Henley’s idiosyncratic brand of dark comedy, have your students study an excerpt from a scene from Crimes of the Heart.  We suggest the following “French scenes”/dramatic interactions from the play, which can be found in either the Penguin Plays (1982) or the Dramatists Play Service reprint (1998) edition:
    Opening moment of the play between Lenny and Chick, beginning at the top of the play, page 3 (Penguin) or 5 (Dramatists), and ending with Chick’s line, “…That’s just the way I was brought up to be,” on page 8.
    Opening moment of Act II, between Babe and Barnette, beginning at the top of the act, page 55 (Penguin) or 34 (Dramatists), through Barnettes’s line on page 59 (P) or 36 (D), “All right, Becky.”
    Interaction between Lenny, Meg, and Babe in Act III, at Lenny’s entrance on page 121 (Penguin) or 70 (Dramatists), to the end of the play.

    • First, if you haven’t already, share the articles and interviews included in the McCarter Crimes of the Heart web site Audience Resource Guide with your students.
    • Then, read the excerpted “scenes” together as a class for comprehension (reading in the round and alternating lines will give each student a chance to try out the speech and voices of different characters).  Some words, phrases, or slang may need to be defined.
    • Next, break your class up into scene-study duos or trios. Groups of two should work on scene #1 (Lenny and Chick) or #2 (Babe and Barnette) and groups of three on scene #3 (Lenny, Meg, and Babe). [Please encourage your male students not to shy away from the female roles. Remind them that all the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays during Elizabethan times were played by male actors, and encourage them to approach their scene study assignments with truthfulness and authenticity, as opposed to caricature and stereotype.]
    • Scene-study groups should read their scene aloud once together before getting up to stage it, to get a sense of the characters and the scene overall.
    • Student-actors should prepare/rehearse their scene for a script-in-hand performance for the class.
    • Following scene performances, lead students in a discussion of their experience rehearsing and performing. Questions might include:
      • What are the pleasures and challenges of performing a scene from Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart?
      • What insights, if any, regarding the play or the characters did you get from staging the play and playing the characters?
      • What about your character felt real to you in the acting of him or her? 
      • Was there any moment that felt strange or awkward in bringing your character to life?
      • Compare and contrast speaking or hearing the text aloud rather than silently reading.   What do you notice about Henley’s dialogue?
    1. Everything and the Kitchen Sink:  Designing Crimes of the Heart with Andromache Chalfant
      When one picks up the script of Crimes of the Heart, playwright Beth Henley welcomes the reader into the world of her play, thusly:

      The Setting
      The setting of the entire play is the kitchen in the MaGrath sister’s house in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, a small Southern town.  The old-fashioned kitchen is unusually spacious, but there is a lived-in, cluttered look about it.  There are four different entrances and exits to the kitchen:  the back door, the door leading to the dining room and the front of the house, a door leading to the downstairs bedroom, and as staircase leading to the upstairs room.  There is a table near the center of the room, and a cot has been set up in one of the corners.
      The Time
      In the fall, five years after Hurricane Camille
      When the reader is a set designer, such as Andromach Chalfant, the creative juices begin to flow:
      Setting the whole play in a kitchen is great because it’s a central recognizable element.  But it creates a challenge to fill the stage believably…. The MaGrath kitchen has layers of history from the 1940s through the 1970s.  So I’ve been thinking about what the bottom layer of history is in the MaGrath kitchen. Under any updates, like new appliances or remodeled floors, what is the underlying structure? What has this family been building on for the last 30 years? 
      Have your students consider—both intellectually and artistically—the “kitchen sink drama” of Crimes of the Heart from the visual perspective of designer Andromache Chalfant.

      • Begin by studying, as a class, Andromache Chalfant’s design portfolio and read more about her thoughts on designing Crimes of the Heart in “Spotlight on the Set” found on this web site.  Ask students to consider and make observations on Chalfant’s designs and her use of line, mass/shape, texture, and color.
      • Next, have students research the following terms/topics:
        • “Kitchen sink drama”
        • Hazlehurst, Mississippi
        • 1940’s kitchens (including images)
      • If possible, have students read Crimes of the Heart from a “designer’s point of view,” taking into special account the world of the play which the MaGrath sisters inhabit from a specifically visual/physical perspective.
      • Then with all of their above research completed, ask students to create a set design rendering (or full color illustration) for Crimes of the Heart.
      • Renderings may be created in whatever medium the students feel is appropriate to create the atmosphere and tone of the play. Popular mediums include acrylics, color pencil, collage, markers and computer art programs.
      • Students should be given time to show their finished Crimes of the Heart renderings to the class, and they should explain their choices and process.