ALAMEDA -- Artistic director Frederick Chacon was asked why he returned the play "Crimes of the Heart" to the Altarena Playhouse. It was done a mere eight years ago. He replied that there were few plays available with good roles for women. "Crimes of the Heart" is one of those.

Perhaps. But most English language plays include females of strong character, even when their strength is played humorously. The humor included in "Crimes of the Heart" is just silliness, although the actresses in this Altarena production are each excellent.

Lenny Magrath, played by Christina Stoffan, seems to be an unhappy person until the end of the play. Her smile is almost a grimace. Her tears over the death of a 20-year-old horse seem sincere.

Her cousin Chick, played by Ally Reardon, enters early, awkwardly changing her pantyhose while standing up. She then sprays the entire room with hair spray. Chick does not live with Lenny in Granddaddy's house; but she feels she should manage everything that goes on. Eventually, Lenny chases Chick out with a broom.

Lenny's sister Babe is played by Chloe Condon. Portraying a woman whose face is as blank as her mind, Babe has recently shot her senator husband, but so far is freely allowed to visit her sister. Years ago, her mother hung herself and a big orange cat, for which she received nationwide publicity. Babe is disappointed that her case is only publicized statewide. Babe explains that she shot her husband because she didn't like his looks.

The family's compulsive liar is Meg, sensitively portrayed by Laura Domingo. Meg has just returned from California where she failed to become a professional singer. She dreams of the success she never had, inventing big success stories for her hospitalized grandfather.

Stage director Angelo Benedetto has directed these four women to scream or to yell their lines much of the time. The resultant noise does little to make "Crimes of the Heart" into a comedy.

Two men round out the story more realistically. One is Doc Porter (Sam Vegas). Doc once planned to go to medical school, but he dropped out of academia years ago when Meg left him for her career.

The other man is a highly qualified attorney, Barnette Lloyd (Michael Scott Wells) who is determined to win Babe's case by making public all the past crimes of Babe's husband that incidentally ruined the life of Lloyd's father.

The stage set portrays a kitchen. It uses most of the theater's north wall so that the play can be done in traditional dramatic form rather than the way the Altarena was built: in the round.

If you should plan to attend Altarena's "Crimes of the Heart," I'd recommend leaving your children at home.

IF YOU GO
What: Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart"
Where: Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through June 16. 8 p.m. Thursday, June 13. 2 p.m. Sunday matinees.
Tickets: $21 to $24
Contact: 510-523-1553; www.Altarena.org