Family. We duel with whether to love or to hate those who share our blood and DNA. One moment, we may cling to any sense of connection to other human beings we can find. The next, we may retract at the slightest attempt of emotional support family offers. Jon Robin Baitz’s play, “Other Desert Cities,” examines this continual struggle between the conflicting states of loneliness and independence.
Armed with a tell-all book, daughter Brooke threatens to untangle the intricate web her posh political family, the Wyeths, has strung for the past 30 years by threatening to expose a deep family secret. The family bristles at the thought, and the eccentric mother protests from the start. The father, however, struggles between upholding his family name and preserving the fragile esteem of his beloved daughter. The opposing viewpoints seem to be the perfect combination for a family feud- or family storm.
The acting in this performance enhanced the play’s drama, bringing the story to a more personal level. Chelcie Ross plays the father of the family, an actor-turned-politician, Lyman Wyeth. Ross excellently portrays the compassion and concern the father feels for Brooke, but displays the internal battle he has with revealing such views. The emotion carried out by the actor’s tone and manner serves to underscore the father’s worry and hint at a more serious issue prevalent in Brooke’s story. Deanna Dunagan plays the stereotypical politician’s wife, strategically aiming each of her comments towards both her children and sister. The execution of such a headstrong woman by Dunagan shows the mother’s struggle to maintain the calculated manner she has worked so hard to keep, again, hinting at the seriousness and danger Brooke’s book contains.
As for action, “Other Desert Cities” uses emotion instead of physical movement. The entire play occurs on one set, spanning the course of one Christmas Eve. But the California-modernist set embodies what one would believe an old politician family, such as the Wyeth’s would have. The credibility of the atmosphere fused with the intimate nature of the backdrop serve to transcend the play to a more personal level. The Goodman designed the set as a window into the secret lives of the Wyeths, and to add a more emotional appeal to the audience. Thus, the character’s issues and family problems seem more relevant and valid than that of extravagantly designed plays. With the set so close and vulnerable, the audience feels it is watching a spat within a family other than seeing a play.
Baitz brought in genuine and evergreen issues of families: politics, wars, blame. The entirety of the family’s conversation or struggle is one that resonates with all. The guilt leads to fear to blame to quarrels: Baitz captured what a true family, whether a family of a wealth politician or a blue-collar worker would fight about. The emotions were so pure and sincere; you could feel the arguments of the different members. Whether resenting Brooke’s grumpy disposition or appalling at Polly’s harsh tone, the audience resonated with the Wyeth family. Baitz was able to strike the audience with such responses, epitomizing what it means to be a family. Even the Wyeths- an elite, upper class family- struggled with the ebb and flow of resentment and affection in family. As displayed by the Aunt Silda’s struggle with Polly, or the unspoken bond between Brooke and Mr. Wyeth, Baitz revealed the unceasing arguments present in familial life and the unending uncertainty of feelings towards one’s “loved”-or not so much- ones.
Baitz’s play will be running at the Goodman from January 12- February 17, 2013.