Review of Jon Robin Baitz's play 'Other Desert Cities'
Family secrets have their roots in shame and fear—shame about an action and fear of discovery. And during family gatherings, such secrets have a way of making themselves known.
In "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, it's Christmas Eve morning, 2004. Polly and Lyman Wyeth, wealthy Republican heavyweights who live in Palm Springs, California, have welcomed home their grown children for the holidays. Daughter Brooke, who lives back East on Long Island, is a writer recovering from six years of writer's block, a recent divorce, and hospitalization for depression. Their son Trip, several years younger than Brooke, lives in Los Angeles and writes funny reality shows for television. Their Aunt Silda, Polly's sister, a recovering alcoholic who has relapsed, is staying with the Wyeths temporarily, very temporarily, Polly emphasizes.
Brooke tells her parents that she's fine now, really fine, and she's finished writing her novel. Only it's turned into a sort of memoir, she says, a revelation that makes the rest of the family very uneasy. Why that is, we are to learn.
Directed by Karla Baldwin, the actors in this Apron Theater Company production give us a smooth example of ensemble acting. Their compelling portraits of the Wyeths are deepened by their interactions. Each character is engaged in an internal tug-of-war. Christopher Coutant's Polly has a brittle façade. She is the kind of mother whose every remark to her daughter is like one of those lovely trout flies people make: it floats daintily on the water's surface, but a barbed hook lies beneath. Despite her protestations to the contrary, Polly can't resist commenting on her daughter's health, her clothing, her life choices, and her tennis serve. Polly has modeled herself on her good friend, Nancy Reagan: control, control, control. Coutant vividly conveys the emotional cost of that control. In an argument with Silda, Polly says without a trace of irony, "I don't like it when people pretend "
Lyman Wyeth, played by Michael Kennedy, has had a remarkable career: successful actor, politician, and ambassador. A Republican stalwart, he supported U. S. involvement in Vietnam, and he supported the U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. On the surface, Lyman seems content in his desert hideaway, yet all his money can't give him the peace of mind he seeks. Kennedy gives Lyman a haunted quality that speaks of a deep, abiding sadness.
Bridget McBride plays Brooke Wyeth as someone who is making her way back from the precipice. We sense her fragility but also her underlying strength. McBride captures Brooke's ambivalence about her book as she wrestles with the question of who has the right to tell a family's story. Does she, as a member of this family, have the right to her own experiences? Or is she obliged to consider the consequences to her parents and brother of telling her version of events? Each member of the family urges a different course of action. Ultimately, Brooke must decide.
Every family has a comedian, the person whose role is to break the tension with a joke. Trip Wyeth, played by Gregory Lesch, uses humor to lighten the mood. For example, he and his sister have very different political views from their parents, and whenever the conversation becomes fraught, he's there with the flippant remark. Trip is not all laughs, though. His anger occasionally breaks through. He's hurt that his sister has never watched his show, that she doesn't seem to really know him. Lesch skillfully balances Trip's competing versions of himself.
As played by Diana Stugger, Silda Grauman, Polly's sister, is both a comic presence and a refuge for Brooke. Because Silda and Polly had a falling out years ago, and Polly has expressed her frustration with Silda's drinking, we're not quite sure about Silda's motives for championing Brooke's memoir. In some ways, as a co-holder of the secret, Silda is the most clear-eyed about the family's hidden past. At one point, she scolds Polly and Lyman, saying, "The zealots who have taken over your party and marinated it in intolerance. You guys let it happen "
By the end of the day, the painful truth, revealed at last, reminds us that actions always have consequences, even if we don't realize it at the time.
"Other Desert Cities" has three more performances: Thursday, March 24 – Saturday, March 26. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. in the newly renovated theatre at Next Stage, 15 Kimball Hill, Putney, Vt., across from the Putney General Store. The seats are comfortable with plenty of leg room, as well as excellent sightlines and acoustics. Tickets are available at www.nextstagearts.org or 802-387-0071.
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at email@example.com.