Friday, February 01, 2013

Other Desert Cities

John Robin Baitz's play OTHER DESERT CITIES is currently being given a seamless production by Chicago's Goodman Theatre.  Right from the moment that the barefoot children with cheeks of pain enter scene designer Thomas Lynch's glass walled desert mansion, you can feel a simmering undercurrent of tension. Noone but the kids goes shoeless.

Baitz does not give us quite the blazing sear of Albee (though  a mysterious absent son does anchor the action), but there is plenty of low voltage angst to go around.  Some of it comes from the catty comic comments of sister Silda, who is played to the hilt by Chicago stalwart Linda Kimbrough.  More comes from the more acid mouth of Polly Wyeth (Deanna Dunagan) , the family matriarch, who has a great deal of Nancy Reagan in her.  That parallel is firmed up by Lyman Wyeth (Chelcie Ross), her husband,  who is a former B movie star and then Republican political tout.  The Wyeths claim close friendship with the Reagans during the play and Lyman was awarded with an ambassadorship  for his troubles. 

The Palm Springs retirement of this conservative couple is attacked full scale when their writer daughter, Brooke,  fresh off of a long fight with depression, arrives for Christmas with the announcement that she will be publishing a memoir that will expose her parent's involvement or lack thereof in the suicide of her older brother in the late sixties.  We are now in Ibsen land and as the past is peeled away, the family edifice begins to disintegrate in front of our eyes.   

No family (parent or child) can miss some of the lessons in the script. Your family may not have suffered pain quite as dramatically as the Wyeths, but Brooke slips into shoes for the first time at the very end of the play.  Nice touch director Wishcampter.  For me it was a sign that adults must ultimately recognize that noone's single perception of a family dynamic can hold all of the truth. There remain actions and motives untold, unknown, or unseen  to the others.  You broadcast your truth at some peril.

Not a great play and Baitz takes some easy political shots, but all in all it is a gripping story well told and thought provoking. Abundant humor also keeps the piece from feeling too Arthur Miller preachy.