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An old-fashioned tragi-comedy, played out under a modern cloud. `A MURDER OF CROWS'

A Murder of Crows Play by Ed Graczyk. Directed by Edward Stern. Starring Kim Hunter and Michael Higgins. ``A Murder of Crows,'' at the South Street Theater, presents a familiar array of family problems amid the doom of toxic contamination. Ed Graczyk's timely tragi-comedy takes place in Ohio, in 1984. The little town of Wallace has been plastered with ``Keep Out'' signs warning that it is contaminated with industrial chemicals. Local residents have been ordered to evacuate the area that has become a despoilers' dumping ground.

Corey Woodson (Terry Layman) and his wife, Doris (Susan Greenhill), have come to Wallace to move Corey's parents to a trailer home near the younger Woodsons in Erie, Pa. Harley and Jennie Woodson (Michael Higgins and Kim Hunter) live over the little store-cum-post office they have been running since Harley lost his farm through bank foreclosure. The property became a chemical waste dump.

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Family tensions begin surfacing as the packing boxes accumulate on the narrow front porch. Harley declares his defiant determination not to leave Wallace at all. Jennie watches miserably as her delighted daughter-in-law assembles the bits and pieces of family furniture and estimates the good prices they will bring at an Erie garage sale.

Matters grow more complex as the play progresses. On the personal level, Corey's presence reopens the breach that began when he quit farming years before. The resentful Harley has never forgiven the defection or grasped the fact that Corey, who also happens to be a Vietnam war veteran, feels he sacrificed his own chances for success. Their reconciliation doesn't come easily.

On a mystical level, Harley reports a lively conversation with long-dead cronies whom he claims to have met as he was fishing in a nearby creek. ``A Murder of Crows'' concludes as the fatally ill Harley and his devoted spouse prepare to take the way out for which Mr. Graczyk has destined them.

Meanwhile, ``A Murder of Crows'' mingles familiar regional folk comedy with the pathos of the situation and the toxic fate that has overtaken Wallace. The scene is periodically enlivened by the appearance of good-natured Luther (Digger) Briggs (Jay Devlin), the town mortician and automobile mechanic, and Velma Mackey (Evelyn Page), a gossipy neighbor bound for Florida with her cat, Waldo (after Ralph Waldo Emerson).

As to the play's puzzling title: Jennie tells Velma about the ominous portents of a flock, or ``murder,'' of hovering crows.

Under Edward Stern's direction, the good South Street Theater cast responds to the tone and varied moods of Graczyk's leisurely writing. Mr. Higgins matches Harley's gritty intransigence with a passionate devotion to the land. Miss Hunter endows Jennie with both wistfulness and a warmth of love that cherishes the worth of her crusty mate. The surrounding performances and the production designed by Ursula Belden (setting), Kathryn Wagner (costumes), and Daniel Stratman (lighting) fulfill the demands of Graczyk's compassionately old-fashioned play about life and death in Middle America.

``A Murder of Crows,'' originally produced by Players TheaterColumbus of Columbus, Ohio, is scheduled to run at the South Street Theater through Oct. 16.

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