Christmas Eve morning, 2004.
Palm Springs, California
Only three years have passed since the September 11 attacks, one of the most tragic events in American history. The country and its politics would never be the same after two hijacked planes crashed into New York City’s Twin Towers.
Presented by Citadel Theatre, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities tells the story of Brooke Wyeth (Liisa Repo-Martell), a novelist who returns home for the holidays after a six year absence. Her parents Lyman (Robin Ward) and Polly (Deborah Kipp) are overjoyed to have their daughter back home, as well as their son Trip (Derek Moran) whose reality television career keeps him plenty busy. Joining the family is Polly’s alcoholic sister Silda (Nicola Lipman) whose recent relapse has forced her to move into the isolated desert home.
The family reunion turns to all out war when Brooke reveals her newest book is not a new novel, but a memoir of the family’s troubled history. The primary subject? Her late brother Henry, a radical anti-war activist whose suicide has haunted Brooke for years.
Baitz’s family drama, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2011, stages the very thing most, if not all, families try to avoid during the holidays, politics. Lyman and Polly are strict Republicans, while their daughter Brooke is what her mother would call a ‘leftie’. In his heyday, Lyman was a screen actor and spokesperson for the Republican party. He and Polly, a former screenwriter, were friends with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, among other influential people. Despite those years being long past now, the couple’s political beliefs are as strong as ever, newly affirmed by the War on Terror.
The American playwright captures the fear and prejudice of a nation struck by tragedy with the character of Polly. Polly’s brazen xenophobia not only displays an extreme distrust of the other, but also reinforces notions of home, territory and borders; patriotism. Her discourse is very similar to that of Donald Trump whose campaign (“Make America Great Again”) for the Republican nomination has employed the politics of fear and othering, capitalizing on global terror attacks for voter support. The parallels are striking, if not disappointing considering how many years have passed since 9/11. Not surprisingly, none of Polly’s views sits well at all with Brooke – a sign of things to come.
Regardless of their differences, political or otherwise, should Brooke betray the trust, and perhaps even destroy her parents’ reputation, by publishing her memoir? The question divides the family and causes them great grief as they are forced to relive Henry’s final days.
What’s interesting about the War on Terror as a backdrop to Baitz’s play are the questions surrounding the nature of truth. Brooke’s account of Henry’s life and his relationship with Lyman and Polly is vastly different than her parents’ own side of the story. Trip criticizes Brooke for thinking her account is the objective truth, drawing attention to her animosity against her parents and history with mental illness. Their parents may not be hundred percent right, but neither is Brooke; the truth lies somewhere in-between. Baitz makes reference to the weapons of mass destruction here, commenting that narratives are spun to achieve specific goals. What is the real objective of publishing her memoir? Brooke struggles with the question and her motives to publish Henry’s story.
Director Brenda Bazinet is graced with an outstanding cast of actors for this riveting production that packs a meteoric punch. Kipp is absolutely scathing as Polly. The actress is a force to be reckoned with as the antagonist to Repo-Martell’s Brooke, a young woman trapped at a crossroads. Repo-Martell fascinates as she ventures from bold to distressed, and sometimes a mix of the two, at the turn of a dime. Moran’s Trip is very much the opposite, always playing it cool even when the tension surges inside the room. Although, there is a sharp, outspoken part to Trip that Moran brings that out well in his scenes with Repo-Martell, giving her the type of tough love that brothers and sisters often exchange. Ward’s Lyman gives traces of the spirit of Old Hollywood, but mainly of someone domesticated by the private life and his golden years . Let sleeping dogs lie proves very true with Ward’s Lyman, a man of great conviction.
The outcast, Lipman’s Silda wins plenty of laughter as the recovering addict who speaks very earnestly, perhaps too much for her own good sometimes. She and Kipp are wonderfully paired as sisters as both can give just as well as they can take.
Bazinet’s precise direction brings the actor together as a (dysfunctional) family unit. The director stages Baitz’s well-crafted story with explosive vigor.
Set & Costume Designer Leslie Frankish’s design for the Wyeth residence is sleek and very chic with its hint of 1970s decor. The furniture arrangements allows plenty of room downstage centre for heated exchanges, almost like a fighting ring with spectators on the sides watching. The line of old photographs that sit just behind the main couch give a sense of how tied the Wyeth family are to their past. Stancil Campbell’s emotive lighting design responds subtly and effectively to the action onstage, reacting with hard lights for more dramatic moments and soft lights for calmer moments. The effect works at drawing the audience further into the drama, although with the side effect of spelling out the atmosphere at times.
Running now until May 1st at the Shoctor Theatre, Citadel Theatre’s Other Desert Cities delivers fierce family drama. A must-see.
Citadel Theatre’s Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz runs April 9 – May 1 at the Shoctor Theatre.
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