Family reunions could be a gathering of love and bliss, but not for the Wyeth family in Jon Robin Baitz’s drama “Other Desert Cities.”
Fraught with an enormous amount of tension, the Wyeth family’s reunion takes place on Christmas Eve in 2004 in Palm Springs, Calif. All seems fine and dandy, until daughter Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) announces the story of her new and soon-to-be-published memoir. Brooke’s book dances around an old, personal family secret, which comes out much to the dismay of matriarch Polly (two-time Tony Award winner Deanna Dunagan) and politician father, Lymen (Chelcie Ross). Also caught in the web of uneasiness are son Trip (John Hoogenakker) and Aunt Silda (Linda Kimbrough).
Overall, the Goodman Theatre production showed a great attentiveness to detail, from the set to the acting. The scenery is a perfect surface for the situation to take part in; it does not give off in any way that a complex and obscure situation will take place, resulting in a greater emphasis of the plot itself. Sort of like a black splotch on white paper—it is much more noticeable as compared to a black splotch on black paper. Although I would have preferred a scene change from the beautiful Californian living room, the set remains realistic to the characters and Palm Springs setting.
There are a total of five—yes, only five—characters in the cast of this play. The emotion incorporated within the tense situation seems to be much more concentrated as a result. Each character is able to be given his or her own background as well as opinions, which pulls audience members in several different directions thought the play. One minute, Polly tugs your thoughts toward the conservative way; the next, Silda lures you in the liberal direction; then Trip convinces you to be Switzerland. This element of “Other Desert Cities” is incredibly refreshing because you are used to a protagonist vs antagonist storyline. By intermission, you find yourself pondering what exactly your opinion is, who you are siding with at the present moment and who you will side with in just a few mere minutes.
That being said, the casting of this production is phenomenal. No actor leaves audience members unconvinced at any point. Dunagan is nothing short of elegant as well as overbearing (as any mother with a reputation to uphold is) in her portrayal of Polly Wyeth, while Hoogenakker’s voice as he annunciates Trip’s hilarious one-liners leaves viewers smiling amidst the tense atmosphere.
An element that audiences should watch out for is the amount of social issues involved. This production is most suitable for audience members 16 and older, as some issues brought up may be inappropriate for younger members.
“Other Desert Cities” verges on the edge of complication and impact as the final secret is revealed; Baitz’s characters, with their clear, yet layered arguments, create an intricate web that audience members may find themselves tangled in as each character’s individuality comes forth. With a stellar cast and a strong storyline, Baitz’s play comes to life.