A year ago, Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables mounted a searing production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. In that one, a family was fractured by loss, grief and the mother’s mental illness.
Now another family will be holding forth on the Miracle Theatre stage. In Other Desert Cities, the Wyeths of Palm Springs have sorrows and secrets of their own, and though wit and humor are part of each member’s way of coping, a holiday confrontation threatens to rip the family apart. Unlike the bunch in Next to Normal, the Wyeths do not sing. But brother, do their words sting.
Other Desert Cities, the newest play by Brothers & Sisters creator Jon Robin Baitz, was a finalist for the Pulitzer last spring, as well as a Tony-nominated Broadway smash. When South Florida’s acting community learned that Actors’ would be doing the play, artistic director David Arisco was inundated (as he was when he announced Next to Normal) with expressions of eager interest from would-be members of the Wyeth clan. He had read about the play during its New York run, and after Next to Normal, people he knew who were seeing the Baitz play on Broadway would text him at intermission or right after the show: “You have to do Other Desert Cities!”
“You don’t normally see a five-person show with as much depth of character and such a fully realized storyline, with even more story to come,” Arisco says. “These are incredibly bright people.”
To create those bright people in his production, Arisco chose a trio of Carbonell Award-winning actors (Barbara Bradshaw, Lourelene Snedeker and Antonio Amadeo), multiple Carbonell nominee Erin Joy Schmidt, and J. Kenneth Campbell, an actor with extensive credits in theater, film and television.
Campbell plays Lyman Wyeth, an actor-turned-politician, a Republican whose long resume includes serving as an ambassador. Bradshaw is his wife Polly, a retired screenwriter whose pals include former first lady Nancy Reagan. Snedeker is Silda Grauman, Polly’s sister and ex-writing partner, not to mention a recovering alcoholic. The Wyeths’ grown children, novelist Brooke (Schmidt) and reality TV show creator Trip (Amadeo), have come home for a Christmas that will prove anything but merry. Like Silda, they hold political views way to the left of their parents’ beliefs. Given how articulate and contentious the five are, verbal fireworks are inevitable — as well as entertaining and moving.
The play’s ultimate lesson, says Campbell, is this: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Bradshaw, drawn to the play because it has “not one but two roles for women of a certain age,” read the script knowing nothing about it and gasped when she got to the end. Polly and Lyman are both tough (Arisco laughs as he calls them “hardasses”), but Polly is really rough on the still-fragile Brooke, who suffers from depression.
“I don’t care if the audience doesn’t like me,” Bradshaw says. “This is a very interesting piece of work. It’s certainly an actor’s playpen. Each role is so layered.”
Baitz’s rich, complex play explores loyalty and betrayal, volatile family dynamics, and the different ways a tragedy echoes in each person’s life. While guarding its secret, Arisco says Other Desert Cities has compassion for all its characters.
“At the end of the day, we’re all people,” he says. “We have to leave this world proving we loved a little and cared a little.”