The holiday season is rendered incomplete without the notorious family feud. “Other Desert Cities” exposes the culture of family reunions, setting the scene for a power struggle that threatens to destroy a family altogether. The Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony-nominated Broadway production premiers at the Goodman Theatre, featuring an all-Chicago cast.
A casual onlooker might not perceive anything awry in the Palm Springs mansion of Lyman and Polly Wyeth. Christmas lights embellish a stately California fir, a collection of carefully wrapped presents rests below, a family mingles about, preparing for a night out at the country club. Home for the holidays are son Trip, a youthful Hollywood producer, and daughter Brooke, a liberal writer with a dark history of illness and depression. The joyous reunion quickly turns to a power struggle, as Brooke announces she has written a book that threatens to destroy the carefully constructed Wyeth family name.
Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) juggles the desire to publish her compelling memoir, and the hunger for family approval. Although Arnold easily grips at the heartstrings of audience members, she falls short in portraying the conflicted villain. Her clashes and appeals with Lyman and Polly resemble those of a teenager, whining and self-absorbed. Arnold could do much more to establish audience respect and credibility.
Lyman (Checlie Ross) has labored his entire career to fabricate the image of the public man, and finds himself resenting Brooke for threatening to eradicate his life’s work. Ross is nothing short of magnificent in portraying the loving, charismatic Ronald Reagan-inspired family man, one that even a lefty daughter would hate to disappoint. Polly (Deanna Dunagan) is central in the conflict with her daughter. The matriarch is equally as important in fashioning and maintaining a public lifestyle, and wages a full-on battle to keep her family, and their long-buried secrets, safe. Dunagan embodies the malevolence and fragility that pushes her to the production’s starring role.
Although at times the begins to fizzle, Trip (John Hoogenakker) and Polly’s sister, Silda (Linda Kimbrough), come quick to the rescue. They observe the fight from the sidelines, often offering their two cents, laced with sarcastic, humorous quips.
The disagreement presents itself as a political brawl, pitting the right-wing couple against their East Coast-minded, left-wing daughter. The audience is quick to recognize the polar opinions as reflections of American political climate, with two parties unwilling to forge an agreement. However, a dark family secret unearths, and the show takes on yet another dimension of good vs evil.
Director Henry Wishcamper cooks a boiling pot of political commentary, seasoned with the hardship of writers and a dash of family squabble. The production stands out in contemporary theatre – it is not a show one can walk away from with a clear mind and a light heart. Rather, “Other Desert Cities” pulls the audience in to experience political, moral and personal conflict.