Review: 'Other Desert Cities' moving, powerful

For some time now, Theatre Lawrence has taken an annual break in March from Broadway musicals and light comedies, and offered a weighty drama often covering difficult issues. Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” is the company’s latest production in this tradition, and it’s a deeply moving, powerful play that doesn't pull any punches.

Brooke Wyeth (Kirsten Tretbar) returns home for the first time in six years on Christmas Eve 2004. Her parents, Lyman (Randy Parker) and Polly (Erica Fox), are delighted to see her, but it is clear almost from the get-go that there is a lot of family tension. Brooke is liberal; her parents are staunch Republicans (Lyman was an ambassador in the Reagan administration). With the second Gulf war in full rage, politics flow through the surtext of all their conversations.

Moreover, we learn quickly that Brooke was hospitalized for a mental breakdown and struggles with depression. Her Aunt Silda (Terry Schwartz) is staying at the house after having relapsed following five years of sobriety. And her brother Trip (Nicholas Johnson) produces a celebrity courtroom show no one in the family watches or approves of.

As if the natural tension this family dynamic produces isn’t enough, Brooke has just completed her new book. She reveals it is not actually a novel, as she originally told them, but is instead a memoir detailing the tragic and scandalous suicide in the 1970s of her older brother after he was implicated in the bombing an Army recruiting station. This rips the scab off everyone’s deepest wounds, and years of pent-up frustration and hostility come rushing to the surface.

It’s impossible to succinctly describe the depth of the characters and the events of “Other Desert Cities.” It is one of the richest plays Theatre Lawrence has offered in recent years, and all five actors hit the mark in their portrayals of this complex, dysfunctional family.

Tretbar is fascinating to watch as the damaged Brooke. From the moment she starts speaking, you can feel the tension and fear Brooke feels toward her parents. She so desperately wants their approval — not just in general but for the subject matter of her book. It’s a foolish hope. Not only is the topic something her parents want to keep buried, her rendering of it is extremely critical. Tretbar understands this dichotomy and communicates it flawlessly, delivering an outstanding performance in a difficult role.

Likewise, Parker’s Lyman is extremely complicated. A former actor and ambassador, Lyman is jovial and always easy to get along with, even when he has strongly held opinions on political matters. But he is stoic when it comes to emotions, preferring not to cause any kind of ugliness. Deep under the surface, though, there is a river of rage and regret at what happened 30 years ago, and, when it finally comes out, Parker draws the audience to the edge of its seat. It’s a powerful performance that sears when the secret is fully disclosed.

In one respect, Schwartz has the easiest role in the play. She is funny and on-the-mark as the recovering drunk and family black sheep. She hits all the right notes as the aging, California hippie. But she spends a lot of time onstage watching the action, and it’s here she really shines. Schwartz’s ability to act (and react) when she has no lines is extraordinary. She is riveting during the big reveal of the family secret, despite having few lines in the sequence. She renders an authenticity to the scene that would have been lacking had it been just Brooke and her parents.

Johnson does a fine job in the role of the youngest kid, who doesn't want to be put in the middle of the battle between his big sister and their parents. It would be easy for him to play his scenes with anger, but instead he infuses them with a gentle compassion for both sides that balances the passion from the other characters. And Fox delivers a strong performance as the domineering mother determined to prevent anyone in the family from failing, no matter the cost.

The set is gorgeous. Phillip Schroeder has done outstanding work in his short stint as Theatre Lawrence’s new technical director, and this might be his best set to date. One feels one is in a desert palace with Southwestern décor. It’s as though the living room of a typical California mansion were transplanted to the stage.

If “Other Desert Cities” has a flaw, it’s in its direction. Director Carole Ries thoughtfully stages the action to accommodate the people sitting on the far sides of Theatre Lawrence. But she brings much of the action down front and has the actors sit on a bench or stand behind a drink cart facing upstage. Thus, only the people in the corners get a clear view of the action. The tactic is most egregious when Parker’s grief is finally unmasked. Shouting his anger and his regret at his daughter, he gives his back to three quarters of the house. It’s a shame, because most of the audience is robbed of his gut-wrenching performance. There are many moments like this, and it was made worse by the fact that the show wasn't sold out, so many of these scenes were played to empty seats.

Still, “Other Desert Cities” — like many of the dramas Theatre Lawrence traditionally offers at this time of year — is a triumph. It is powerful, moving, and beautifully performed. It’s the rare community theater that is willing to offer this type of material, and TL should be commended not just for bringing challenging fare to Lawrence, but for rendering it so well.

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