Most people know that the best way to recover after a traumatic event is not to pretend it never happened, however, that doesn’t always stop a person from seeing if maybe that tactic will work after all. Other Desert Cities explores what happens when the Wyeth family is confronted by Brooke, the middle child, who intends to publish a memoir about what happened to her family when her brother Henry committed suicide after falling in with a crowd of left-wing extremists who blew up an army recruiting station – an event the family themselves has yet to work through.
At the top of the show, Leslie Frankish’s grand set oozes of the political class, with its abundance of wood and leather and a stand-up bar in the living room. Meanwhile, the setting of Palm Springs is established in a subtle, fun way with statues of cacti at the very back of the living room.
Set against the flawless backdrop is a flawed family together in their Palm Springs home for the first time in 6 years. Parents Lyman (played by Robin Ward) and Polly (Deborah Kipp) are old stock Republicans (or, as Brooke says, ‘right-wing sociopaths’), deeply embedded with the party – so much so that Nancy Reagan is simply ‘Nancy’. You can believe that the Wyeth’s got to where they were in the world by keeping everything they could under their control, and while they might be out of the public life now, Deborah Kipp as Polly has the plastic smile of someone who wants things to continue to be completely under her control. Spoiling the perfect, controlled picture though is Polly’s sister Silda (Nicola Lipman), who is staying with them as she continues her recovery from alcoholism. Trip (Derek Moran), the seemingly perfect younger brother, is visiting from Los Angeles where he is working on a reality TV show. Finally, Brooke (the writer and troubled middle child played by Liisa Repo-Martell) is visiting Palm Springs for the first time in six years, following a bout of depression that time in a hospital and writing the memoir helped her out of.
The trouble is, Brooke’s family – and especially her parents – are not exactly what you’d call supportive of how this memoir reflects on their family and the unwanted spotlight it will throw them into. All this tension comes to a head during a big reveal where Brooke is opened to the possibility that maybe her parents aren’t the monsters she thinks they are.
Join the Wyeth’s for this family reunion at Citadel Theatre’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’ Other Desert Cities, running until May 1.
A key idea that Baitz’ script and the Citadel’s production explores is the idea of truth and fiction – how easy they are to confuse and whether they can be the same thing. It’s at the edge of public and personal life where the controlled Republican image Polly and Lyman want to project meets the messy truth of their deceased son’s leftist politics. Brooke’s memoir delves into this margin and that overlap between the public and the private is what threatens to crumble the image Polly and Lyman have spent years building. I especially loved Deborah Kipp’s dry delivery of matriarch Polly’s lines like “Acting or real – the two are hardly exclusive in this family.” In Other Desert Cities, the characters constantly accuse one another of lying while lying themselves at the same time. And while one family member notes that many people get through life by lying, the Wyeth family is clearly at the point where that way of living will no longer work for them.
Wrapped into this discussion of truth and fiction is a discussion of art. I loved the back and forth on whether Brooke’s book was a novel (fiction) or a memoir. The debate is also tied to the question of whether one can write a memoir about something that happened to the family, not just one member of it – how can Brooke’s book be a memoir if it doesn’t capture the experience and truth of all involved? Is this story hers to tell regardless of whether her family approves of it, or does her family have a right to censor the manuscript? Does she show it to them as something that is ‘for your information’ only, or does she need to ask for their version of events? There are no easy answers (although, as a blogger, I think it’s clear which side I come down on), but Other Desert Cities provides lots to consider.
I really enjoyed the questions the script asks and the way the story deliberately builds over the course of the play (though I have to say I wish the ending of the play was more ambiguous instead of the tidy way it was all wrapped up), however, on the night I saw the play I was left wanting a bit more from the actor’s performances. The night I attended, most of the performance was delivered without the emotion I expected from the story. At its core Other Desert Cities is about people fighting to maintain their place in the world, and that visceral fear that what the characters have might be taken away wasn’t conveyed to me through the performance. For a play whose subject matter necessitates that the audience understands the stakes, the things that were at risk was never really established through the character’s desperation to hang on to how things were. Polly threatens Brooke that if her book is published, Polly will be her mother in name and blood relation only – she would no longer be able to provide the support and devotion she has in the past when she supported Brooke through her depression. Brooke freely and casually talks about her experience with depression despite being raised in a family where image and control is everything. Trip, who has all the outward appearances of being perfect, reveals he is experiencing his own mental health issues and that he ‘is probably a sex addict’ – and this is received without reaction. In Polly, the fire, drive, and politicking that every public figure’s spouse needs to have as they work just behind the spotlight to help raise their family’s station was missing. In the actions of both parents, it’s hard to believe Brooke’s claims that their stubborn beliefs turned her brother into a left-wing extremist. The characters are fighting to maintain the status quo – their family, their memories of past events, their image in the public eye – the list goes on. The events taking place in Other Desert Cities are not ones families discuss without emotion and it’s confusing to see them portrayed that way. The audience needs to see those deep emotional reactions coming from the character’s survival instincts to help understand where each side is coming from and the enormity of what is at stake if Brooke’s memoir is published. However, I saw Other Desert Cities very early in its run – even before opening night – so it’s entirely possible this was a one-time experience that won’t be had during the rest of Other Desert Cities‘ run.