REVIEW: ‘Other Desert Cities’ effectively portrays wealthy Californians in familial turmoil.
Family relationships never cease to be fascinating. Every family has ugly secrets hidden away somewhere, protected by a cover of lies to each other and especially to the outside world. Celebrities often complain that they live in a fishbowl, but everyone lives in a fishbowl, it’s just that the size of the fishbowl is smaller.
And therein lies the familiar theme in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a powerful play revealing an emotional secret now showing at Arena Stage. It is Christmas Eve in the exclusive Palm Springs desert enclave of the Wyeth family. Brooke Wyeth, who is home for the first time in six years, is recovering from a nervous breakdown and has written a memoir that she is unaware, threatens to reveal a tragic event in the family’s history. She is in danger of revealing a big lie that has been hidden by her successful, California-beautiful parents.
Brooke doesn’t share her parents’ Reagan Republican conservatism — her father, Lyman Wyeth, adeptly portrayed by Larry Bryggman, is a former B-movie actor who entered politics and was rewarded with an ambassadorship. Her mother, Polly, the familiar and always praiseworthy Helen Carey, has patterned herself in successfully mirroring the shallow social, behavior standards of Nancy Reagan. Adding to this volatile mix is Brooke’s brother Trip, played by Scott Drummond, who produces a low-brow television series. To his sister he has sold out. Rounding out this troubled family is an alcoholic aunt, Sida Grauman, portrayed by Martha Hackett who has some of the best lines. She lives unhappily in the Wyeth household and is wonderfully cranky and cynical. She was once a co-writer with her sister, Polly.
It all makes for a singularly unhappy Christmas with Brooke who is dealing with the disappearance of an older brother presumed dead in a war protest bombing several years before that killed an innocent bystander. Brooke was only a child at the time and blames her parents for what happened to the big brother she idolized. She believes her parents want the memory of that tragic event to go away because it was a major embarrassment for them among their conservative friends.
Brooke, portrayed with a painful poignancy by Emily Donahoe, becomes such a sympathetic character that you find you strongly support her right to publish her book, including an excerpt in The New Yorker. The intensity of her parents’ opposition forecasts something deeper, more sinister that neither Brooke nor Trip understands. The truth is illusive and has been buried so deeply that revealing it portends emotional destruction.
Director Kyle Donnelly masterfully moves this troubled family at the brink of discovery through the early comfortable veneer of wealthy Californians having a happy holiday reunion at the country club to the darkest collapse of parents who have kept a corrosive secret too long. The revelation of that mystery is a look into how destructive a big lie can be, even if the secret is maintained for more significant reasons.
Donnelly’s set effectively creates a Palm Springs home with the natural stone associated with desert luxurious homes, complete with fire pit and well-stocked bar. The setting conquers the detractions of theater in the round and in itself becomes an element that enhances “Other Desert Cities.”