A scene from Desert Rose Playhouse's production of Crimes of the Heart.

More than four decades ago, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Groundbreaking back when it premiered in 1979, its themes of domestic abuse and racism still resonate today.

Set in Mississippi in the 1970s, the story revolves around the three Magrath sisters, Lenny (Laura Martinez-Urrea) Meg (Zoe Sanchez) and Babe (Emily Rose Unnasch). Each woman is dealing with her own life crisis. Babe, the youngest, has just shot her husband; middle sister Meg has returned home from a failed singing career in Los Angeles after spending time in a psychiatric hospital; and Lenny, the eldest, is a spinster with a shrunken ovary who is celebrating her 30th birthday all alone.

As the play opens, Lenny is singing “Happy Birthday” to herself. Her gossipy cousin Chick (Alexa Ottoson) stops by, eager to share the latest scuttlebutt about Babe. Ottoson bursts onto the stage in a whirlwind of energy and has some very funny moments as she squeezes into pantyhose that are a size too small. She was perfectly cast and is great fun to watch. There are times, though, especially early in the play, when the combination of her Southern accent and her rapid-fire speech make her difficult to understand.

Babe soon arrives, out on bail and facing an attempted-murder charge. Her stated motive for shooting her husband Zachary: “I didn’t like his looks.” Seems implausible. Last to show up is Meg, whose dreams of musical stardom were derailed by a mental breakdown.

The women have all been dragging around major emotional baggage from childhood—their mother hanged both herself and the family cat. That trauma has fueled much of the pain and chaos the sisters are dealing with as adults. On top of that, Grandpa, who raised them after their mother’s death, is in the hospital, in grave condition.

Rounding out the story are Doc (Jason Reale), Meg’s old flame, and Babe’s defense lawyer, Barnette Lloyd (Nick Wass.)

Director Robbie Wayne, who is from the South, does an excellent job with his ensemble cast. Particularly skilled at dark humor, he guides them seamlessly from tragic moments to raucous laughter.

This production features some strong acting. Laura Martinez-Urrea is quite good as the repressed Lenny. I have both performed onstage with this young actress and reviewed her in the past. It’s wonderful to see her really come into her own in this role.

Zoe Sanchez is terrific as Meg. Disheartened, disheveled and a bit trashy, Zoe lets us see Meg’s vulnerability and the torch she still carries for Doc.

As Babe, Emily Rose Unnasch is a standout. There is not one false note in her performance. At times, she’s bubbly, dreamy and innocent; at others, she’s dark and suicidal. It seems she may have been the most affected by their mother’s decision to take her own life. One mark of a good actor is their ability to stay engaged and “in the scene” when another character is speaking; Unnasch has this skill in spades.

Jason Reale’s Doc is appropriately quiet and subdued, but with conflict and lust raging underneath. The onstage chemistry with Meg is palpable. As attorney Barnette Lloyd, Nick Wass delivers. He comes across as erudite and analytical, while grappling with a long-standing personal feud with the ill-fated Zachary.

Once again, Matthew McLean has nailed it with the set. It perfectly captures the feel of 1970s Mississippi, down to the old-fashioned fridge and the pictures on the wall. The lighting, sound and costumes are all top notch.

Crimes of the Heart is a loving peek into the lives of three eccentric Southern sisters. It’s warm, funny, poignant and, at times, melancholy. If you’re from the South, have a sister, have ever been in love, have suffered career disappointment, or known someone with mental health issues, you will enjoy this play. I’d say that’s pretty much all of us.

There are just four more chances to see Crimes of the Heart at Desert Rose Playhouse. Don’t miss it.

Crimes of the Heart will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 3, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 16. Tickets are $39; high-top tables (for four) or VIP couches (for two or three) are $177. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Bonnie Gilgallon

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...