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.
Lynn Deboeck doesn’t like the term, “period piece.” At least not with regard to Naomi Wallace’s “And I and Silence,” which opens Friday in KU’s Inge Theatre under Deboeck’s direction.
“It’s set in the 1950’s time period for a reason,” the third-year doctoral candidate says. But “the 50’s time period throws (the show’s themes) into greater relief.”
And those themes are deep. The play tells the story of two women in prison. Jamie is black. She’s wrongfully convicted of accessory to robbery and incarcerated for nine years. In jail, she meets Dee, who’s white and sentenced to nine years for murdering her father because he was abusing her mother and her. Despite their different backgrounds, they become friends.
“When they’re in prison, they plan what they’re going to do when they get out,” Deboeck says. “In the second act, when they are out and older, they discover they’re still in prison. But, this time, it’s societal expectations imprisoning them.”
Deboeck’s been looking for this opportunity for awhile. A fan of Wallace’s work, she purchased a copy of “And I and Silence” from Amazon.com several years ago.
“I read it cover to cover four times in a row when I got it,” she confesses.
She originally proposed it to Ottawa University, and they were interested. But it turned out the amateur rights weren’t available at the time. When she got a chance to do it for it for her doctorate, she was overjoyed.
“I think it’s a fabulous play for young actors,” Deboeck says. “I think these women are relatable.”
Of course, whether she calls it a period piece or not, the play is set in the 50’s, and the historical events of that period might require some education for actors in their late teens or early 20’s.
“When we sat down to do table-work,” I had this whole plan to educate them on the civil rights movement,” Deboeck says. “Instead, it came from the cast.”
She found her cast members all were aware of the events, but they had totally different views of them.
“My white actors went to school, and they learned about these events, and then they went home, and that was the end of their education on it. But the black actors learned about it in school, and then they went home, and their parents taught them even more about it. The white actors had this academic understanding of the civil rights movement, but, for the black actors, it was experiential. “That led to everyone really learning about each other and coming to understand each other’s perspective a lot more.”
In the play’s second act, Jamie fights against who she is more than Dee.
“She just wants to be normal,” Deboeck says. “She doesn’t want to be judged.” Ultimately, that’s what’s at the heart of the play. It explores the concept of prison – both the physical ones and the societal ones we have imposed on us. It examines their nature and what they do to their victims.
“I hope (the audience) comes away with their own sense of responsibility for acknowledging the prisons of this world,” Deboeck says.
“And I and Silence” opens Friday, October 25 at the Inge Theatre in KU’s Murphy Hall. It runs Oct. 26, 27, 29 and 30. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday when it is 2:30 p.m. An audience talkback follows the performance on the Oct. 26. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.
A man believes he’s Batman and goes on a killing spree. A woman tells her children she has a secret lover, but they’re not sure he’s real. Another woman seeks a spirit guide... and three answer the call.
Spring is here, and that means it’s time for EMU Theatre’s annual 10-minute play festival. The cornucopia of shorts once again has a broad selection of material.
“We’ve got nine 10-minute plays,” says Andrew Stowers, one of the show’s producers. “It’s a pretty eclectic mix.”
EMU’s selection committee received 20 submissions, including entries from both the East and West Coasts.
“But the shows the directors were really interested in were the ones written by Kansas authors,” Stowers says. “We got a lot of great plays from across the country.”
In addition to the three above, the festival also features a farcical treatment of British history, going from Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon to Shakespeare and Elizabeth in a mere 10 minutes, and another play features a home invasion gone comically wrong. There are also more serious works wherein a man confronts his dying father, and one called “God’s Work” featuring a girl dealing with issues of life and death.
“We’ve got some pretty heavy drama, and some pretty ridiculous comedy,” Stowers says. “This is easily the best group of plays we’ve ever had.”
Between plays, EMU’s improv troupe will be performing to keep things light during the scene changes.
“It’s a really audience-friendly show,” Stowers says. “If you don’t like one play, another one that might appeal will be along in 10 minutes.”
EMU Theatre’s 10-minute play festival, “Snake, Rattle & Role,” run March 22, 23, 29, and 30 in the black box theatre at the Lawrence Arts Center. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door. A reception follows the opening night performance.