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Monday, November 30, 2020

The Heart of the Matter

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Thanks to a recently acquired scanner that whisks piles of papers into PDFs – and its accompanying OCR program – I’m able to digitally store what used to take up too much file-cabinet space. And share unearthed clippings like the one below. This was a 1985 interview with Eleanor Koblenz, who was an Albany (NY)-area theater powerhouse. She reviewed shows for any number of papers, local and national, and also did marvelous work as a director. I’m distressed to see that the internet can find no photo of her; what you see below is from a photocopy of the clipping.


HUMOR IS A SENSE that seems to be uniquely human. In its more sophisticated forms it becomes the unexpected underbelly of tragedy. It’s also one of the dramatist’s most powerful weapons: get an audience laughing and you’ve got an audience that trusts you. Emotions become more accessible. This is the secret of such masterworks as Chaplin’s “City Lights,” the pathetic ending of which carries all the more punch because of the humor that has come before.

Eleanor Koblenz
In “Crimes of the Heart,” Beth Henley examines the life of a family in Mississippi (her native state) – in particular, three sisters whose lives have become complicated by a succession of tragedies. Tragedies that are given a wickedly humorous twist in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was a strange play,” said director Eleanor Koblenz. “It juxtaposes very serious material with a – what should I say? A quirky comic outlook.” The production, by Albany Civic Theater, opened last night (Wednesday) at that company’s playhouse. It marks Koblenz’s 10th directorial effort for ACT.

“It’s different from the kind of play I’ve been directing the past few years. and that’s what attracted me to it,” Koblenz said. “So much of the time I’m involved with plays with a strong dramatic content, or historical plays. So I saw this as being a real challenge.”

The cast of six includes Channel 13(WNYT) reporter Benita Zahn as Meg, who has returned to Mississippi after an unsuccessful stint trying to sing in Hollywood. Debby Sample is Lenny, a stay-at-home spinster, and Criss Henry is Babe, a naïve woman who has just shot her husband because she didn’t like his looks. Gwen Frasier, Colin McCarty, and Jerry Nicklaus complete the cast.

“I’ve never worked with any of these actors before,” said Koblenz, “which is unusual since I’ve been directing for over 15 years in this area. But they’re all very experienced, and with the three women cast as the sisters, I think we’ve achieved a believable family. So often you’re tempted to rely on resemblance alone. but we’ve gone beyond that with speech and mannerism.

“I was fortunate, too, in getting a copy of a tape that Beth Henley and her sister made for the original Off-Broadway cast in which they talked about their own family and read parts of the play. Beth herself is one of three sisters. That gave us good samples of the dialect, which is unique to that part of the South.”

“Crimes of the Heart” plays for two weeks, Wednesday through Saturday nights at 8, Sundays at 2 PM, through February 3. Tickets are available at the ACT box office and at CBO outlets.

“It’s been advertised as a ‘rip-roaring comedy,’” the director said, “but you shouldn’t get the idea that it’s going to be an evening of one-liners. What you’ll see is the humor that comes from human foibles – humor of irony and circumstance. And, as strange as these characters may seem, you’ll find that you can’t help but like them at the end.”

Metroland Magazine, 24 January 1985

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