A family drama rife with emotional tension, relieved by moments of searing, hilarious black comedy, John Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities is a wonder. It tracks the angst of a divided family split by politics and the painful history of a young man’s tragic suicide in the tense time of the Viet Nam War. Set in the Palm Springs home of former actor and ambassador Lyman Wyeth (Mark Bramhall) and his former comedy-writer wife Polly (Ellen Geer), it is Christmas, 2004 and their novelist daughter Brooke (Willow Geer) is home for the holidays with galley proofs of a new book, a memoir that details the events leading up to her brother’s death and her subsequent years of clinical depression.
Staunch Reaganites, (Polly calls Nancy “a sister”), the Wyeths are politically active in the Republican establishment and occupy their twilight years by holding fund-raisers and playing tennis at “the club.” During the war, their oldest son Henry was a product of the times, a young man without direction who drifted into drugs and involvement with a radical anti-war group that bombed an Army recruiting station. The potential storm the book could bring on stirs the wrath of the tightly wound Polly who, without even reading the book, fears the damage that revelations from dead past could do to the Wyeth’s relationships with close political friends.
Also home for Christmas, Brooke’s younger brother Trip (Rafael Goldstein), who produces a reality show on television, walks a tightrope between his parents and Brooke, and tries mightily to conciliate as the conflict spirals out of control. Polly’s sister and former writing partner Silda (Melora Marshall), a bright, brittle recovering alcoholic, takes Brooke’s side and tends to pour gasoline on the fire.
The playwright reveals the lines of stress in the family with superb crackling dialogue, sometimes wickedly funny, at other times sharp and cutting. The play exposes the complex emotional forces of genuine love and affection, fear and frustration, bitter memories and history that are a universal part of any family’s story. There is a superb balance here. All the characters have reason and a valid point of view. The play is utterly gripping, utterly fascinating. Other Desert Cities is a playwriting tour de force with fully-formed, three-dimensional characters that, when infused with life by excellent actors, can make the audience giddy with laughter and later make it lean forward in pin-drop moments of rapt attention.
The casting is ideal. Willow Geer’s Brooke carries the rangy, emotional weight of the show with genuine in-the-moment spontaneity. As Polly, Ellen Geer perfectly embodies privileged hauteur coupled with drill-sergeant discipline. Mr. Bramhall’s Lyman has the smoothness of an old actor, the balance of a diplomat, and he shows his comedic chops when he demonstrates one of his famous death scenes, which made me want to shout out, “Die again, Lyman! Die again!” Mr. Goldstein reveals the turmoil beneath the easy-going exterior of Trip, and Ms. Marshall, with her acerbic sarcasm as Silda, won the audience at her first appearance, which rewarded her with applause on her exit.
The Theatricum Botanicum outdoor stage reminds me so much of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Elizabethan stage in that elaborate settings are impossible as well as inappropriate. They must of necessity be relatively simple, especially with a forest as a backdrop. Rich Rose’s set design suggests a modern Palm Springs home with some furniture, a copious array of booze at the bar table, a lush carpet and a Scandinavian fireplace. Zach Moore’s lighting is fine as summer twilight gives way to night. Vicki Conrad ‘s costume design reinforces character and action. Sound design and original music are by Marshall McDaniel. Props by Sydney Russell compliment the setting.
Other Desert Cities, directed with keen insight by Mary Jo DuPrey, continues through September 30 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, California.