“Other Desert Cities” written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Julie Janson is now playing at The Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac Maryland until December 15, 2019.
The play opened Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center in January 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It opened on Broadway later in 2011 and received five Tony award nominations. The New York Times called this family-centered drama, “…a razor’s edge of affection and aggression.”
The title refers to a “control city guide sign” on eastbound Interstate 10 in California stating the highway goes toward Indio, California and “Other Desert Cities” in the Coachella Valley.
It begins on Christmas Eve 2004 when Polly (Nancy Blum) and Lyman (Ted Culler) Wyeth living in Palm Springs. Their daughter, Brooke (Emily H. Gilson), a writer, comes back home from New York. Polly’s sister, Silda (Susan Holliday), just recently out of Rehab, is there on a long-term visit. The two sisters are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Also visiting is Trip (David Dieudonné), Brooke’s younger brother, a television producer.
It is obvious that Brooke and Trip do not see eye with their parents on political and social issues. The play takes place while the country is still dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. The older Wyeths support the Republican cause and have been friendly with the Reagans and other Republican notables. They belong to a country club, and both gave up Hollywood careers to support Lyman’s career in government in earlier Republican administrations. Their children see them as selfish, rich prejudiced snobs. They also blame them for the death of their older brother, Henry.
It is when Brooke, a writer, announces the impending publication of her new book, a memoir surrounding the events of her brother’s death, that the conflicts in this drama and hidden family secrets are revealed. Not wanting to give away too much of the plot, because this play is also a mystery that is unraveled during the action, it is enough to know that at times this is a black comedy, at times a heart-wrenching family drama and, as stated, somewhat of a suspense story.
‘Other Desert Cities’ will move you and perhaps open a dialogue with your own family. It is a road well worth taking.
The five actors keep us engrossed and let us see inside the characters’ facades through inflections in their voices and subtle movements.
Culler and Blum are true standouts as the parents. They slowly reveal the fabric inside these two people who seem to be just uncaring, not just to the suffering masses, but to their own family. The two actors convey the characters’ love for their children and even the alcoholic and often contentious, Silda.
Gilman’s Brooke is at once fragile and the next minute of great emotional strength. The character has suffered from major depression, and Gilson makes us believe that she has been down a bad emotional road for many years.
Holliday cleverly plays Silda as the likable lush, only to reveal she too has her own personality defects that are not always as likable.
Dieudonné’s character is probably the easiest with which to identify. He is successful and often acts as a buffer between his sibling and aunt and his mother. He also portrays Trip as a little self-absorbed at times but mostly caring of his sister who he idolizes and his parents, as well.
Under Janson’s direction, the play is beautifully staged and even when there are long speeches, she keeps things moving and visually powerful. There are no static scenes. She also appears to let her actors develop these most believable characters and establish the tight but fractured family relationships.
“Other Desert Cities” is presented in the Sanctuary of Har Shalom. However, the set design by David Levin is bright and cheerful and mirrors the wealth of the Wyeths. A small white Christmas tree and beautifully wrapped presents catch our eye as the action begins. The lighting design by James Robertson and the sound by Matthew Ratz complement the action.
My only small complaint is at the very end of the script. There is an epilogue that I felt was superfluous. However, it only lasted a few minutes and did not distract from the powerful action on stage.
“Other Desert Cities” will move you and perhaps open a dialogue with your own family. It is a road well worth taking.
“Other Desert Cities” will be playing Dec. 5-15, 2019 at 11510 Falls Road, Potomac, MD. For information and tickets for “Other Desert Cities” and future productions contact Peace Mountain Theatre Company’s website.