Don’t turn off to Other Desert Cities: the highway to The Goodman Theatre’s production of Other Desert Cities does not fail to impress – by Lara Jung
To watch Other Desert Cities as a teenaged girl with barely any recollection of some of the thematic elements in the play might seem to be a monumental struggle. In fact, an elderly woman came up to a me and my friends during the intermission and asked how it was that we were enjoying the play with such heavy undertones like war, depression, family secrets, and the inner complexities of every family member. Here’s the thing: it wasn’t a struggle. Henry Wishcamper’s rendition of Other Desert Cities, written by Jon Robin Baitz, doesn’t fail to include any audience. The Goodman Theatre did well in choosing to include this production for their season this year.
For lead character Brooke Wyeth (played by Tracy Michelle Arnold), it is the first time in six years that she has been home in Palm Springs. It is Christmas Eve, and Brooke reveals to the family her new book, recently finished. The book explores Brooke’s relationship with her dead brother and the circumstances surrounding his suicide. Tension arises as the book threatens to reveal secrets that the family has harbored since the day their brother died.
The conflict in the play portrays itself through the two different tones taken by characters throughout the play. In Act One, Polly Wyeth, the mother (played by Deanna Dunagan), puts forth a harsh and entertaining force. It is in the contrast of her character between Act One and Act Two that the audience comes to see the internal conflicts each character sustains. The difference lies in the writing as much as the portrayal of her character. In Act One, Polly seems unaffected and stubborn, while in Act Two, Dunagan’s body language and tone of voice shifts to a more protective, albeit defensive one. This contradiction manifests itself in all of the characters: in the troubled yet righteous aunt (played by Linda Kimbrough), the goofy yet exasperated brother (played by John Hoogenakker), the reserved yet ambivalent father (played by Chelcie Ross).
This disparity within the characters’ personalities reflects the conflicting ideas of hard fact (through the context of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars) and the muddled aspects of family secrets and histories. No matter what the time period, no matter what the political climate, the bare bones of family life are never as clear as a news report on the goings on in a war.
It is this conflict set against beige, nonspecific backdrop that highlights the normalcy of such familial turmoil. From set designer Thomas Lynch’s monochromatic layout to the infrequent costume changes, the significance is clearly not placed on fabulous background. While at times the size of the stage seemed overwhelming (the play is in the Goodman’s bigger of their two stages), it serves its purpose to emphasize the actors’ portrayal of a conflicted family. In the middle of the chaos of a family reunion, it can seem a little overwhelming to have such a spread out set, however the actors use that “bigness” to their advantage; they use the space to not only show the emotional and generational distance between different family members, but also to emphasize the small moments of closeness (especially when Brooke Wyeth and her father embrace in Act One).
In many ways, it is true that I cannot relate to the production’s thematic elements, or understand its references to a time in which I was not even born. Keeping that in mind, I understand why that woman came up to me during the intermission. I have only one answer for her (and I wish I had come up with this when she asked), and it is born from a line the voice of reason and understanding (the brother) had. To me, the message of the play is this, even if you don’t entirely understand what’s happening, even if you are kept in the dark, all that will have mattered is who you have loved and how you have loved, which, I, and everyone else out there with a family, be it fractured or intact, normal or chaotic, can understand.
When: January 12-February 17
Where: The Albert at The Goodman Theatre
Approx. running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission