Other Desert Cities
Written by Jon Robert Baitz, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Original Music/Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Katie Ailinger
CAST: Nancy E. Carroll, Anne Gottlieb, Munson Hicks, Karen MacDonald, Christopher M. Smith
Performances through February 9 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
When Brooke Wyeth visits her parents in Palm Springs over the holidays, it marks the first time in six years she has ventured to the West Coast from her safe haven in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Along with the manuscript for her latest book, I hope she packed her body armor. She is about to become embroiled in a family feud that could sever their relationship unless Brooke is willing to back down. That seems unlikely since she shares the genes of her mother Polly, a dragon lady made in the same mold as Nancy Reagan.
Ron and Nancy are just a couple of the names frequently dropped in Other Desert Cities, a complex comedy-drama by Jon Robin Baitz in its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company. The generational divide in the Wyeth family includes political party loyalties, fashion, opinions about the Vietnam War, and lifestyle choices, for starters. All of these topics provide fodder for discussion in the Wyeth home on Christmas Eve 2004, but they are merely appetizers for the main course. After Brooke reveals that her new book is a family memoir, not a novel as everyone expected, the knives come out to slice it (and her) to shreds, metaphorically speaking.
By way of background, Lyman Wyeth (Munson Hicks) is a retired film actor and former chair of the Republican National Committee. Domineering Polly (Karen MacDonald) is a pit bull with lipstick, but knows how to turn on the surface charm. Her sister Silda (Nancy E. Carroll), just out of alcohol rehab, lives with them, but is an avowed liberal who does not share their views or their values. Younger brother Trip (Christopher M. Smith), producer of a reality TV show, is also visiting for the holidays, but makes it known that he has at least three better invitations. Besides her frowned upon bohemian lifestyle, Brooke (Anne Gottlieb) has to answer for her divorce and have her post-breakdown mental health constantly scrutinized by Mommy Dearest.
The central family secret that they have all worn like a shroud for twenty-five years concerns the suicide of older brother Henry following his involvement with a bombing at an army recruiting center. He had been estranged from his parents and connected with a radical political cult, but was devastated when a custodian was killed in the attack. Brooke's understanding is that Henry came to his parents for help and they refused, leading him to commit suicide. Her big brother was more than her best friend; he was her world, and she was compelled to write the story to overcome her grief, find a way to breathe, and move on.
Lyman and Polly are horrified that their daughter is dredging up the past and going public with it imminently. They've been comfortably living the revisionist version of their lives in the desert and fear having their cover blown, so to speak. Brooke wants their acquiescence, if not their blessing, before an excerpt runs in "The New Yorker" in January. Silda is wholeheartedly supportive, encouraging her not to back down; Trip takes a more neutral stance, wanting to be there for his sister, but unable to recognize the one-dimensional monsters she describes in her book as the parents who raised him.