By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Scott Edmiston
Review by Becca Kidwell
(Boston) At a time when nostalgia for the eighties is heightening (neon, rubber bracelets, leg warmers,
cut off tees), Jon Robin Baitz reminds us that our recent past was neither as lavish or simple
as we would like to contain it. As the last of the Reaganite politicians cling desperately to
the “grand old party,” gen-xers (like myself) try to find meaning out of a part of seeming trivial
history. Baitz sends a thermobaric weapon to the Wyeth household in the form of Brooke Wyeth, played by Anne Gottlieb.Brooke is determined to take control of her own life while forcing her family to confront their buried secrets. Ms. Gottlieb does an excellent job with a difficult role. Described as a depressive who once attempted suicide, the character could easily be portrayed as a passive figure and the play would be stopped dead in its tracks without the impetus to move forward. Fortunately, this is not the case with Gottlieb’s performance. Her Brooke is full of life and is dealing with her problems in a proactive, energetic way; she has recognized her problems and is actively working on being true to herself and hopes that her family will reciprocate.
Another character that could have a shallow existence is Trip, Brooke’s brother. However, Christopher Smith infuses depth to this producer of a “People’s Court” type show. Nancy E. Carroll’s role is a boon as the recovering alcoholic, seemingly co-conspirator with Brooke as Aunt Silda. Without question, Carroll takes that role, delights in it, and makes it her own. While Silda is a fun and witty character, it takes someone with precise comic timing and subtlety to pull it off.
Karen MacDonald plays a strong, Texan, Republican matriarch who does not want to show any weakness or frailty. McDonald’s performance does a good job of balancing from loving to overbearing. Her main downfall is from the costume designer as she is dressed in wild clothing that I have not seen of any politician’s wife in the past thirty years, which was jarring as I was trying to picture her having lunch with Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Marilyn Quayle. Munson Hicks’ performance as Lyman Wyeth is doddering and disconnected. While he is meant to be a Reagan-like former actor turned politician, Hicks seems to be stumbling with his lines to the point that no connection is made between Lyman and the other characters or even himself as an actor and the words of the text. This is unfortunate as his character is supposed to be a quiet, but palpable figure that has had a strong influence upon Brooke and the rest of the family.
Janie E. Howland’s Palm Springs family home for the Wyeth family is evocative of the old-modern structures of the fifties and sixties which works well for two retired Republicans who are trying to remain loyal to their party while their party has changed radically since their days of influence.
Overall, the play is an interesting character study with some well-crafted performances. The writing is pointed yet witty in many places, and works well in our liberal backyard. It’s worth a look for anyone who is still trying to figure out what happened to our country from the wildly affluent, optimistic eighties to the cautious—almost redactory serviced—fearful society that we face today. Other Desert Cities is a great reminder that our actions both political and personal have consequences that may not play out right away, but slowly create large piles of shrapnel that gets carried along and continues to grow as long as we ignore the truth within our hearts and homes.