The Christmas dinner table topic of politics is one many wish to avoid. Every other year I witness the subtle eye roll of my mother as we listen to my staunch Republican father argue with his brothers. Watching the tense interactions of the Wyeth family in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” was an experience I was all too familiar with. Tracy Michelle Arnold stars in the production as Brooke Wyeth, a writer emerging from the shadows of depression. As she struggles with exposing a family secret, posh Palm Springs is no longer a Christmas getaway.
The story centers on the struggle between family loyalty and self-fulfillment, two concepts we often find at odds with each other. Polly and Lyman Wyeth, Brooke’s parents, live a life of privacy. Formerly Hollywood stars, the two adamantly oppose their liberal daughter’s views. Brooke’s desire to write about her older brother’s suicide creates a rift in a family of vast ranging political opinion. Fueled by political clashes and ragged family history, an argument soon turns into a life-changing scenario.
The story pulled me through a whirlwind of changing opinion regarding the characters. Originally, Brooke’s commitment to her career and wellbeing was admirable as she sought to gain closure. The opinions and pressure of her family seemingly did not disturb her stoicism. As the play progressed, however, Brooke’s inner turmoil became apparent. Soon enough, she became more unstable in her feelings, though it was evident a part of her brother’s story was missing. I was so conflicted as to who I wanted to side with, thinking perhaps this was Baitz’s intention. He was indeed successful, for by the end of the first act, my thoughts were a hodgepodge of emotions. The pot had been stirred to no end.
As for the visual aspect of the production, I found the set to be terrific. Though mostly immobile, I did not see a need for a complex stage. The story solely needed a setting that accurately described where the Wyeths resided; fortunately, it did just that. I could nearly feel the warmth of faux Palm Springs reverberating into the theater, a stark contrast from the Chicago weather.
A saying I had once heard comes to mind as I think about this play; if the audience is the same emotionally as they were before they entered the theater, a production does not do its job. In that case, “Other Desert Cities” was nothing short of successful. Due to my familiarity with family issues regarding politics and mental illness, Baitz’s piece resonated with me in a way I had not expected. Many go to the theater looking for entertainment; they do not expect to be moved in such a way. Though the subject matter was indeed touchy, this beautifully crafted play delivered. “Other Desert Cities” provoked and impacted the difficult feelings we often choose to ignore.