It’s Christmas Eve 2004, and the Wyeths (not the painterly family up in Maine, but a seemingly dysfunctional one with their own hang-ups in Palm Springs) are celebrating the holiday with an extended-family visit. Polly (Karen MacDonald) and Lyman (Munson Hicks) have opened their starkly decorated home to their children, Brooke (Anne Gottlieb) and Trip (Christopher M. Smith), as well as Polly’s sister Silda (Nancy E. Carroll). In this production of “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz (“The Substance of Fire”, “A Fair Country”), expertly directed by Scott Edmiston, Speakeasy Stage Company has a piece of theater with an impressive history; it first opened off-Broadway in a sold-out production (earning Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations and awards), moving to Broadway, where it had five Tony nominations and became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The play concerns a memoir that Brooke has written that reveals part of the family’s past, especially that of her dead older brother. All of the members of this family react to this revelation with the considerable weight of their own baggage, much of it in the form of some long-interred secret guilt that’s buried deeper than it first appears. Before the holiday passes, we are privy to numerous themes including Jewish assimilation, politics and diplomacy, the need to connect with one another, and the several kinds of gridlock. But beyond all else, this is fundamentally about truth. By the play‘s end, we discover our assumptions shattered, as do the members of the family; all of them have been living a lie, but not the one they thought they were living.
As Silda puts it, “truth is expensive”, it often comes at great cost. Brooke has come home for the first time in six years, after having been hospitalized during a period of severe depression. Silda (who wrote movie comedies with her sister in the 60’s) is coming out of rehab, again. Trip has fallen into the dead end trap of producing manufactured reality television. Polly and Lyman have escaped into their desert hideaway grasping onto the remaining scraps of their prior prominence in the world of ultraconservative politics (casually alluding to “Ronnie”, “Nancy”, or “Don Rumsfeld”). Initially, they all seem to be existing in their own separate worlds, but gradually we come to realize how interconnected they are. Despite the barbed and witty ripostes, and there are many, there is a great deal of love beneath all the verbal battling.
While the play itself is extraordinarily involving, it’s the acting on view which makes this production a terrific piece of theater. MacDonald is a wonder to behold as the aging but still controlling matriarch, and the vulnerable Gottlieb has always provided a target for her manipulative ways. Hicks, at first aloof and reserved, comes into his own as he visibly implodes as his tightly woven cocoon starts to unravel. Smith is another force of nature as the son and brother unfairly called upon to judge or referee, and Carroll is excruciatingly funny as the observer ever ready to crack wise. Each one of them gets at least one great moment in the spotlight, but, under Edmiston’s intensely focused direction, it’s as an impeccable ensemble that this cast really shines.
As do the technical contributions, beginning with the Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, frozen in time in the middle of the last century, just as the family scions are. The Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker ably reflects the varying lifestyle choices of each character, and the Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Original Music/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay add to the specificity of the work. All of their technical expertise anchors the story. It’s under this superficial level, however, that Baitz works his theatrical genius. No one is what she or he first seems, from the stereotypical neocon parents to the detached sisterly observer to the apparently interdependent siblings.
Baitz has written that the making of art (in the case of this play, a literary work) is a metaphor for the cost of truth-telling. He feels this is especially true while we are in a cultural change that demands a more strict ethical standard as well as more courageous honesty in that primal milieu we all start off in, namely the family. As in politics, movies and television (all targeted in this work), so family life in reality often depends on well-constructed fictions, as we come to discover about the Wyeths in this play. The title, as Brooke remarks, refers to a sign on Interstate 10 in California for a the freeway exit “towards Palm Springs, and other Desert Cities”. As this title further suggests, there are alternatives to Palm Springs just as there are alternatives in life to emotional deadlock; once we grow beyond our presumptions about people we think we know, there can be redemption. The play’s original title, “Love and Mercy” (also the title of the memoir Brooke has written) was perhaps less ambiguous. In the end, this family is not as dysfunctional as it may at first have seemed. There is love among them that has helped them all survive. Any serious lover of theater should definitely take that exit toward the route to the Wyeths.