Any writer knows the temptation of using one’s own family stories for material, in any form of writing; they’re connectable, easy to remember and sometimes, as is the case of Brooke Wyeth, not so easy to forget. In “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, that line is one that is debated through the entirety of the play.
“Other Desert Cities” presents the very real idea that family secrets are something that can be seen as sacred, something that could potentially make or break a family. Especially a family such as the Wyeths — a family seated deep into politics and the Hollywood limelight. With the play’s use of only five characters, it begged the question in my mind of, simply, how was this going to work? Well, the answer wasn’t so simple.
The play starts off in a variety of ways, the family arrives back from an outing, putting them in a familiar setting to the characters and very quickly the truth of Brooke’s visit is brought to light, sending the play into what seems to be (towards the end) a cliché murder mystery. Brooke Wyeth (Tracy Michelle Arnold), daughter of Lyman Wyeth (Chelcie Ross), a retired actor, and Polly Wyeth (Deanna Dunagan), a headstrong and stubborn mother, returns home for the holidays after finally completing a manuscript for her latest memoir, a story that could have the potential to ruin her family; the tell-all story that could leave them, rooted so deep in government and society, in ruins.
The family struggles with the knowledge that Brooke has decided to go on and publish said memoir, bound in a nice little package, without any real consultation from them; the secrets of their past written in black and white on some four-hundred odd pages ready to be sent all across the world without a care towards the people it is about. And yet, as we find out, the story is anything but “black and white.”
The characters are complex, and not in the best of ways. They are contradicting; Aunt Silda, (Linda Kimbrough) a comic relief, is recently out of rehab and still a drunk, her brother Trip (John Hoogenakker), another relief, wants nothing to do with the family arguments but seems to be the only one actually furthering the storyline for the first act of the play. And her father, who doesn’t want to hurt his baby girl, ends up being the one to give her the ultimatum. And then there is Brooke, who suffers from a crippling depression that left her hospitalized and, as she continually repeats throughout the play (almost to the point of suffocation), she’s alone. But at the same time, she’s rich. She seemingly has enough money to buy away all her cares, but, apparently, not her peace of mind.
For someone who is just as used to being on stage as well as behind it, the concept that “Other Desert Cities” would take place in one location only, the Wyeth household, was a concept I was very skeptical. How well would the story flow with one location and only five characters? How would multiple storylines connect if everything was laid bare in one room? Even though I’ve seen plays with a unitary set and small casts I was still cautious walking into the theatre. At the end of the play though many locations were acted out in “Other Desert Cities” that made me wonder, maybe family means being stuck in the same room, trying to decide if you’re going to work out your differences or leave, and the unitary set could be an example of that; how the past is always present and there are ghosts in the most comfortable of surroundings. As the play comes to a close, that idea is reflected in the shift of scenery; a catharsis for the main character.
With a set designed by Thomas Lynch and the multi-layered, emotionally complex characters directed by Henry Wishcamper, “Other Desert Cities” is a play full of familial suppression and oppression, witty characters, a continually twisting plot-line and characters that leave you wondering; whose side am I on? For each storyline there are ups and downs, such as when, in the beginning, Trip is played out as the comic relief, unaffected by the inner turmoil of his family but, as Brooke causing more rifts within the family, it is soon realized that Trip may not be as unaffected as he seems.
With the creative use of sardonic humor and political savvy punch lines, “Other Desert Cities” is able to balance heavy emotions and dark secrets to create a flawless, mesmerizing production. Whether it be the posh, art-deco style set, the complicated characters or just simply a well-written plot, “Other Desert Cities,” with the direction of Henry Wishcamper, has brought something intricate and elaborate to the Goodman stage that doesn’t need flashy lights or musical numbers. It’s a show that will leave you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next, and in the end, walking out of the theatre with a new mindset of what exactly it means to be a family.
“Other Desert Cities,” written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Henry Wishcamper, is running at the Goodman Theatre from January 12th until February 17th, 2013 at 170 N. Dearborn Chicago, IL. To reserve tickets, www.goodmantheatre.org.