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Three Sisters 

The Alliance Theatre's Crimes of the Heart has its share of campy qualities. Rhoda Griffis as Chick "The Stick" Boyle has a bulbous bouffant and matching attitude of drawling disdain. Jen Apgar plays would-be Southern murderess Babe Boutrelle as a child-like, galloping preppy, like a sorority sister with homicidal tendencies. Apgar meets a hilarious match with Brandon O'Dell's intense, overdramatic lawyer, who comes across like a young Don Knotts -- even his name, Barnette Lloyd, isn't that far from Barney Fife.

But director Susan Booth breaks from convention by taking the play mostly seriously. Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winner is one of those Southern-lady comedies that always seem to be having a rollicking community theater production somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line. Booth's production has plenty of humor, but it also tests the script for dramatic heft.

One might expect actress Rebekah Baty Hammer to be cast as one of the more spirited of the play's three sisters, either Babe or aspiring singer Meg (played with fitting anger by Susie Spear). Instead Hammer portrays the melancholy eldest sister Lenny, who has spent her life avoiding love to care for "Old Granddaddy," the off-stage character who raised the girls after their mother's suicide. Lenny has some broadly funny lines -- "I just hope all this doesn't cause me to vomit!" -- but the actress puts off her usual exuberance until the very end and hits effectively poignant notes along the way.

Appropriately attentive to Southern touches like green Coke bottles, the Alliance's Crimes proves amusing but has a poky pace, and the playwright's epiphanies seldom feel very profound. And if we're meeting the sisters as characters, not caricatures, we can't help but notice that their mental problems aren't as cute or as neatly resolved as Henley seems to believe. Crimes' affirmation of family togetherness may leave the audience with the warm fuzzies, but antidepressants might be called for as well, with the sisters benefiting from drugs on top of hugs.

The Alliance Theatre stages Crimes of the Heart through April 20 at the Alliance Theatre Company, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. Tues.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. $17-$46. 404-733-5000.

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