Of this you can be sure: Beth Henley has not gotten to where she is in the theater through self-promotion. Asked in a recent interview why she stopped acting after college, Ms. Henley said: "I was not a good actor. I was way too shy. I didn't want to send out a picture of myself."
A pretty, diminutive woman, Ms. Henley was tucked like a cat into an armchair at the Algonquin Hotel, a couple of blocks away from the Laura Pels Theater, where the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Ms. Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" will start previews next week.
"Crimes of the Heart," which is about three sisters reuniting after the youngest, Babe, shoots her husband, won the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Great American Play Contest in 1978, when Ms. Henley was only 27. It opened on Broadway in 1981 and went on to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle award for best new American play, and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. As a film — starring Diane Keaton, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Lange as the sisters — it was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.
Ms. Henley calls "Crimes" a "memory play." Like the two plays she wrote next, "The Wake of Jamey Foster" and "The Miss Firecracker Contest," "Crimes" takes place in Mississippi, where Ms. Henley grew up, and its plot is a mix of bleakness, comedy, and sentiment. The Magrath sisters have had more than their share of misfortune. Babe's husband abuses her. Meg went to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career but had a nervous breakdown. Lenny is dutiful and overburdened and painfully lonely.
But the sisters' suffering is so gothic as to be comical. Mom hanging herself is tragic, but Mom hanging both herself and the family cat is darkly funny. Similarly, one character in "Jamey Foster," Pixrose Wilson, is a teenage orphan whose life has been marked by fires: Her mother burned the house down, cremating herself in the process. Her father died in a car explosion that also left her brother with permanent brain damage. Most recently, the orphanage where Pixrose lived went up in smoke. In the play, soon after Pixrose arrives at the Fosters' home, she accidentally starts a kitchen fire.
Asked if, growing up in the South, she was surrounded by people like this, Ms. Henley said: "They're very toned down, the plays. Reality is much more intense." She added: "Just in terms of how crazy these people are, how disturbed they are, how lost, how tragic. I sugarcoated it in order to make it palatable — for myself, I imagine."
When a reporter asked (tentatively) if she wanted to say more about the reality of which the plays are a toned-down, sweetened version, Ms. Henley paused, then said: "I'm trying to write a play now that takes place in a motel in 1965 in Jackson, and I think it's going to deal with much more of the truth." She added: "I have this desire to deal with the evil." Ms. Henley cited Tennessee Williams as a strong influence. Her mother, an actress, played Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Laura in "The Glass Menagerie" in local productions, and Ms. Henley remembers going over her lines with her. She is also influenced by Chekhov: "I love 'The Three Sisters,'" she said. "This is sort of my humble version of it."
She lives in L.A., but said New York is her favorite city, because of the vibrancy of the theater world: "The fact that at 8 o'clock at night all of these people pretend to be other people … then going out for drinks afterward. I mean, what could be better?"
Asked what "Crimes" is ultimately about, Ms. Henley didn't hesitate. "Loneliness," she said. In retrospect, she also sees it as a feminist play. "I didn't think of it [that way] at the time," she said, "but looking back it's very much so. These women are enraged." In 1974, when the play is set, the feminist movement "hasn't reached Mississippi — but it has subliminally."
"Crimes" is unusual in having three major female roles. The Roundabout production is also directed by a woman, Kathleen Turner. (Ms. Turner and most of the actors did the play last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.) Asked if she thinks people see her as a "women's playwright," Ms. Henley responded in her characteristic quiet way: "I have no idea. I assume they don't know me at all."