Tragicomedy at Trinity Rep The question left behind after Beth Henley's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning ''Crimes of the Heart'' came road-showing through Boston last season was: Can this play travel?
The answer at the Trinity Square (Providence) Repertory Company's current mounting of the tragicomedy about three sisters hit by calamity is: yes, like a summer storm tearing across the American heartland.
Henley's play may lean a little heavily on the deus ex machina, and she may be guilty of contriving to sweep her characters on and off stage with too plotty an exuberance; but her work certainly deserved better than it got on the road.
The play, which had its birth at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Ky., in 1979, showed up on Broadway in 1981 with most of its down-home humor, if not all of its latent character-power, intact. The fragile core of Henley's richly human invention - a shared remembrance of what it means to be a family enduring in the face of all odds - was almost entirely lost in the 1983 roadshow that meandered through the Shubert Theatre here.
Director Paul Benedict's production at the Trinity Rep has its failings, too - a tendency to overplay the farce, for instance. Benedict's decision to draw the needling character of Chick Boyle in broad slapstick, and to turn the more important role of Lenny McGrath into a manic mouse, saps the play of some anchoring reality.
Still, it realizes much more of the delicate beauty inherent in the play than either of the two previous productions. The result is a tender, powerful, funny evening in the theater.
Becca Lish (Babe Botrelle) turns in a performance so real and delicately etched that the balance of the work is restored. Miss Lish is one of those actors you see at Trinity Rep, in play after play, doing a thoroughly professional job. Then a role comes along that is simply kismet for them - and for the audience. That's the way it is with the part of this Southern fruitcake who shoots her husband because she has been robbed by him and everyone else of the singularly important treasure of her own identity.
Nobody else in the production comes close to Lish's luminous intensity, although Dan Butler, as the flamingly zealous Barnett Lloyd - with an endless supply of pencils in his pocket, carrying a Bic lighter that flares like a blowtorch - comes on with comic power.
Melanie Jones lacks the flat-out frenzy that made Meg Magrath memorable on Broadway, but she compensates with a touching vulnerability that serves the role well. And Daniel Von Bargen plays Doc Porter with heartland simplicity.