by Clark Groome
Jon Robin Baitz, in his terrific “Other Desert Cities,” looks, at first blush, to be examining at a family where the parents are the devils and the kids their victims. Look closer and you’ll find that those parents are really not the enemy, not the devils that they seem initially.
Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Susan Wilder and Greg Wood) are Reagan conservatives living in a magnificent Todd Edward Ivins-designed Palm Springs mansion. Polly, working with her drunken sister Silda (Ann Crumb), was a successful screenwriter. Lyman was an actor-turned politician who served as an ambassador when his pal Ronnie was president. Polly, like Nancy Reagan, is more or less in control, making sure that whether or not all is well, it all looks good.
There three kids are another matter. All are liberals who disagree with their parents’ politics. Daughter Brooke (Krista Apple) is a depressive writer whose latest book, which she brings home to share on the 2004 Christmas visit, is the occasion for the play. Her younger brother, Trip (Matteo Scammell), is a TV producer who seems to serve as the family’s mediator.
The issue at hand is the book’s subject matter, the Wyeths’ older son Henry and his life as a rebellious and drugged-out kid who, after being implicated in a violent anti-war protest, was reported to have committed suicide.
The parents, apparently not wanting to be embarrassed, don’t want the book published. But there is more, and that I won’t share. Suffice it to say that the secrets the parents have kept change everyone’s view of the way things were, are and should be until Polly and Lyman are gone. Polly says that “Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby” and that when doing so, “There are consequences.”
From the very beginning, this is a family that will grab your attention. The clear early view of them – careful Lyman, controlling Polly, screwed-up Silda, angry and frightened Brooke and seemingly together Trip – morphs ever so slowly and believably into something quite different.
Baitz is an important playwright. In this piece he reminds me of a combination of A.R. Gurney Jr. and Edward Albee. Yet his voice is his own, and what a voice it is.
He has created a family that is at once dysfunctional and totally committed to each other. It’s a family you can’t take your eyes off and one you ultimately want to succeed. As the secrets are slowly revealed, there is hope that they all will.
“Other Desert Cities” is receiving a stunning production at the Walnut Street Theatre, where it will be through March 2. Director Kate Galvin has a flawless cast, each of whom gives a stunning performance as part of the impressive ensemble. This group is clearly a family with all the passion, humor, competitiveness, tension and, yes, love that entails.
In addition to Ivins’ set, the other good designers are Colleen Grady (costumes), Thom Weaver (lighting) and Christopher Colucci (sound).
“Other Desert Cities” is a very special play, filled with real human beings whose feelings, both revealed and bubbling beneath the surface, make this perhaps the finest non-musical the Walnut has ever mounted on its main stage.
For tickets call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org.