Christmas holidays with the family are notorious for dysfunction, especially when politics and still-simmering grievances from long ago are added into the mix. Yet Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Pulitzer finalist for Best Play, takes that familiar trope into a different and entirely unexpected direction, painting a portrait of a still-grieving family coping with loss, guilt and anger over events in the past. Under Jeffery Schwalk’s sure and steady directorial hand, Jon Robin Baitz’s drama provides a chance for five actors to explore imperfect characters wrestling with consequences of secrets that have gone unmentioned for decades.
Set in 2004 as the war in Iraq was kicking into high gear, the play concerns wealthy Palm Springs retiree Lyman Wyatt (Bill Arvay), a former actor who found greater success as a spokesman for conservative causes and became an ambassador under Reagan. Wife Polly (Debra Haines Kiser) once wrote screenplays with her liberal sister Silda (Resi Talbot) until politics drove them apart. Son Trip (Marshall Spann) is a neurotic but likeable producer of a trashy courtroom reality show, while daughter Brooke (Dell Goodrich), recovering from both emotional and marital breakdowns, is a writer of travel and lifestyle articles who hopes to exorcise the demons of a family tragedy by baring her soul in an upcoming memoir.
At a matinee last week, Goodrich gave a nuanced and multifaceted performance as the play’s nominal protagonist, allowing the audience to see both the accomplished professional and intellectual side of Brooke, as well as the wounded child who still misses her other brother Henry, a radical who was involved in a Weather Underground-style bombing in the ’70s. Arvay captured the mannerisms of a veteran actor on screen and in life, avoiding all mention of his missing son in favor of the constant maintenance of a hearty, cheery facade.
Kiser portrayed Polly with a sharper edge, suggesting that frequent cocktails were the fuel needed to keep up the lifestyle of a country club tennis enthusiast. Small wonder that Brooke was tempted to keep driving past Palm Springs and explore the other desert cities of the title, yet the phrase also seemed to imply lifestyles and relationships that might have been, had Lyman not gotten involved in conservative causes, and had his son not rebelled. Spann functioned as the voice of reason within the family, yet also gave Trip a sardonic, Gen-X edge, while Talbot capably uncovered Silda’s complex motivations and history.
The set, designed by the director and Patrick Faulds, was simple, but implied wealth and privilege, with the representation of a stone fireplace standing out as particularly attractive. Faulds’ lighting design illuminated some exterior foliage outside double doors, with changing colors signifying the time of day in successive scenes.
Costumes by Alexis Doktor were appropriate for all, with Arvay’s spiffy attire revealing much about his character. Whether dressed in all-white tennis togs, complete with a sweater draped over his shoulders at just the right angle, or clad in a stylish blue blazer with a complementing scarf, Lyman appeared to be costuming himself to present a specific persona, implying traits learned as an actor which he later employed in politics.
Like many playwrights of the modern era, such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, the author at times tweaks realism just a little, allowing his characters to speak in long, eloquent monologues, often revelatory or accusatory. Thankfully, both director and cast were up to the challenge of making this seem natural.
Also impressive was Schwalk’s blocking, which utilized nearly every inch of the spacious Cottingham Theatre stage, and enlivened some fairly static scenes of extended exposition.
Family dynamics — and the concomitant acting opportunities provided for the cast — are at the heart of Baitz’s story. While everything from Reaganomics to Vietnam are alluded to in passing, the central conflict would have worked just as well had Henry been, say, some white supremacist bomber, at odds with wealthy liberal parents.
Either way, the family’s concern in the first act that Brooke’s upcoming book will reveal truths about Henry that don’t need to be revisited sets the stage for a second act filled with twists, turns, anguish, and ultimately catharsis.
Other Desert Cities doesn’t try to resolve the problems found in modern political discourse, but the play takes a stab at healing one family’s greater yet more intimate wounds, and in doing so affords the opportunity for some fine acting and characterization.
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