Director Pat Yates talks South City Theatre’s ‘Crimes of the Heart,’ storytelling

Jennifer Spiegelman is among the stars of “Crimes of the Heart” at South City Theatre.

Ask Pat Yates, and she’ll tell you she was “born a teacher.”

“The first students to involuntarily enroll in my classes were my dolls and stuffed animals,” she says.

But after graduating from Huntsville High School and then Florence State University (now the University of North Alabama) with a degree in English, secondary education, she made it official.

Pat Yates

What followed was seven years teaching English at Hayden High School, 20 years at Thompson High School in Alabaster (where she started teaching theater) and 11 years at Mountain Brook High School, teaching only theater. She ended her career as COVID-19 hit, teaching English at Jefferson State Community College.

Now, she’s directing, and her latest show is Beth Henley’s classic Southern play “Crimes of the Heart,” running Feb. 9-17 at South City Theatre in Pelham. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1981, is the story of the three Magrath sisters – Meg, Babe and Lenny ­­– who reunite in Mississippi after Babe shoots her abusive husband.

Yates is familiar with Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play both as an actor and director.

“Over a decade ago, I directed ‘Crimes of the Heart’ at Mountain Brook High School, and in my much younger days, I played Lenny in Montevallo Main Street Players’ 1984 production,” she says. “The Magrath sisters don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but through it all, they realize they can get through those really bad days because they have friends’ and each other’s love and support to sustain them when life can seem pretty miserable.”

Yates’ theater career began while teaching English and speech at Thompson High School, where her speech students wanted to put on a play.

Lori Mercer in rehearsal for “Crimes of the Heart.”

“I felt totally inadequate, so I enrolled at the University of Montevallo and received a master’s in language arts, secondary education,” she recalls. “I took all of my language arts classes in the theater department.” During that time, at the state Trumbauer Theatre festivals, Yates was mentored by Sandra Taylor and Ron Harris, whom she calls “two of the best theater teachers in Alabama at the time.”

“They taught me so much and reinforced my newfound passion for the arts,” Yates says.

That passion translated into directing hundreds of high-school plays, acting in a handful of shows, and now, since retiring as a teacher, directing community theater.

Throughout, the goal has been to tell stories and reach an audience.

“During my 40 years of teaching and the last decade or so directing community theater, I found the general process of mounting a show to be basically the same; I’m simply dealing with different levels of training and experience,” Yates says. “As a high-school theater director, I was teaching students theater terminology, script analysis, various acting techniques, character analysis, character development and the power of collaboration—directors, actors, technical designers and crews working together to give life to the director’s overall production concept.”

Community theater, for the most part, involves more seasoned actor who already have that knowledge, she says.

“Yet, anyone involved in theatre is actively strengthening their problem-solving, critical thinking, and analytical skills while learning about and empathizing with characters from all walks of life,” Yates adds. “The goal, no matter our role in the production, is to tell a story that is meant to reach an audience in any number of ways: encourage self-reflection, gain an understanding of those who are different from us, question the status quo or simply walk away smiling and whistling a little tune having been thoroughly entertained.”

Yates hopes “Crimes of the Hearts” has audiences smiling, but also “contemplating many of the serious issues that plague the Magrath sisters and many families everywhere who have experienced a traumatic past.”

Mike Gerrells designed the 1970s-era set, and Yates’ cast – Lori Mercer, Autumn Brown, Brennan Martignoni, Jennifer Spiegelman, Megan Pecot, and Carter Crane – has years of experience.

“Each rehearsal, I delight in watching each one work through the complexities of his or her character and slowly develop a living, breathing Mississippi personality who is trying to come to terms with his or her insecurities and painfully, dark familial/domestic history,” the director says.

Though many in the audience may already be familiar with “Crimes of the Heart,” either from previous stage productions or the 1986 movie starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek, Yates is confident the play still has the power to move audiences.

“’Crimes of the Heart’ makes us laugh and touches our hearts,” she says. “We hope, despite audiences’ familiarity with this 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, we will give them a funny, thought-provoking show that will touch their hearts, too.”

“Crimes of the Heart,” at South City Theatre, 2969 Pelham Parkway, Pelham, Feb. 9-17.

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