Loyalty, conflict and buried secrets are driving forces in many a family. In exploring that resonant territory, the best playwrights mine the complexities, twists and turns of life. We laugh. We’re surprised. We feel loss and heartbreak.
That’s precisely the emotional journey Jon Robin Baitz has charted in Other Desert Cities, his funny and searing recent Broadway hit.
Now getting an exhilarating regional debut at Actors’ Playhouse, the Pulitzer-finalist play by the creator of TV’s Brothers & Sisters is a witty, often intense examination of the infinitely varied ways we manage to hurt the ones we love. Intergenerational conflict, sibling rivalry, the pull of addiction, depression and deeply held political beliefs are but some of the forces threatening to fracture a family on an otherwise sunny Christmas Eve in Palm Springs circa 2004.
Patriarch Lyman Wyeth (J. Kenneth Campbell) is a dashing former movie star, an old-guard Republican whose Hollywood friendship with Ronald Reagan -- Ronnie -- got him an ambassadorship back in the day. His wife Polly (Barbara Bradshaw) is a Texas-born screenwriter who gave up career for family, her wit, creativity and sharp tongue exercised in a more intimate arena. Polly’s sister and former writing partner, Silda Grauman (Lourelene Snedeker), is an alcoholic in fragile recovery, a free spirit without her disapproving sister’s steely self-control and conservative political views.
Home for what proves to be a not-so-festive holiday is the Wyeths’ son Trip (Antonio Amadeo), the successful producer of a reality TV courtroom show blending the law and faded celebrities. His writer-sister Brooke (Erin Joy Schmidt) is there too, home for the first time in years, back from a long bout with depression and bearing a “gift” for her justifiably wary parents. Six years after a successful debut novel, Brooke has another book ready for publication. But this one is a family memoir steeped in tragedy, an accusatory look back at the life and death of her antiwar activist older brother.
The Wyeths’ seemingly happy reunion soon devolves into a war of words, wits and threats. Director David Arisco has assembled a cast of five formidable warriors, actors who play the complexities, flaws and vulnerabilities of each character.
As the judgmental and sometimes venomous Polly, Bradshaw adds another vividly realized character to her resume, displaying the time-honed skills that helped her win the best actress Carbonell Award two years in a row (she’s won four over her long career). Campbell, Big Daddy to Bradshaw’s Big Mama in a recent North Carolina production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is every inch the charming former movie star, his purring voice and controlled demeanor erupting volcanically once Lyman loses it over the threat that is Brooke’s book. Snedeker makes Silda a subversive if damaged-but-real life force, and as her nephew, Amadeo is playful and spirited, more like Silda than his conservative parents. Schmidt, making her Actors’ Playhouse debut, expertly navigates Brooke’s bumpy emotional ride from apprehension to outrage to shock.
Just as impressive as the fine cast is the way the design team has realized the Wyeths’ world. Tim Bennett provides the family’s sleek desert abode, a tasteful home with an inviting stone fireplace and windows that frame the expensive sky-and-mountains view. Lighting designer Patrick Tennent colors that sky, with bright morning sunlight, a pastel sunset and twinkling stars. Sound designer Alexander Herrin provides folk-flavored music that conveys the moment in time when the family’s world was forever altered. Ellis Tillman suggests character and class through his costumes, particularly in Polly’s put-together chic and Silda’s tackier, more colorful look.
Other Desert Cities ends with a coda that ties up several loose familial ends, but it isn’t nearly as dramatic as the final image Arisco and the actors paint on that devastating Christmas Eve. That’s the emotional apex of a soaring, exquisitely realized production.