‘Other Desert Cities’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by August 11, 2017

‘Other Desert Cities’ is an enthralling, present-day drama that was written in 2011 by Los Angeles-born, Jon Robin Baitz. Baitz, who was raised in Brazil and South Africa, is probably best known for his recent TV series, ‘The Slap’.

This gratifying tale of an unspoken, family secret won Baitz the Outer Critics Circle Award for ‘Outstanding, New, Off-Broadway Play’. As he was also a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, it is not surprising how cleverly structured this play is. Baitz, now in his middle age, is a university Professor of Theatre Studies.

The Old Mill Theatre and Playlovers are presenting a 3-week season of this powerful family drama, with a touch of comedy. It can be seen at the Old Mill Theatre, Mends Street, in South Perth on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 8.00 pm until Saturday 19th August. There are matinées at 2.00 pm on Sunday the 6th and 13th.

 

It is Palm Springs on Christmas Eve 2004. The play name refers to the signpost seen on the interstate highway 10 as the road heads towards Indio and the Arizona desert.

The scene is a luxurious lounge in an affluent home situated on a hill overlooking the desert. Barry Park’s design for the room comprises a stunning, 3-metre high, curved window in a complete semicircle, which, being on the top of a hill showed only a view of the sky. There is a full-length window seat, which, like the room walls is constructed of various coloured, thin natural stone veneers. An impressive set.

The white leather seating along with a stainless steel and glass table, rest on a shag-pile carpet. On one side of the stage is a line of waist-high, white cupboards with an array of drinks on top. On the other side an impressive log burning fire. The set construction was by Greg Aylmore, assisted by Frank Aylmore, Daniel Toomath, Peter French and Neale Paterson. The tasteful decoration and finishing touches were added by Alida Chaney, David Gardette, Peter Smith and Leon Plumley.

The production was managed by Marie Corrigan and stage managed by Kiri Siva.

John Woolrych’s lighting design cleverly changed colour as the time of day progressed. The lighting was smoothly operated by Jack Bengough, and the sound operated by Daniel Toomath.

 

       The Wyeth clan are returning home from a game of ‘doubles’ at the prestigious Palm Springs tennis club.

       Once famous film stars, the loud, bigoted and brassy, Polly (Cate Jennings) and her stern, egotistical husband, Lyman (Dean McAskil) are pleased to have home for Christmas, their daughter Brooke (Sally Barendse), a magazine journalist who has spent six years working in New York. They have been joined by their easy-going son, Trip (Steven Hounsome), a TV chat show producer.

       Having just been released from rehab, Polly’s alcoholic sister, Silda (Chandra Wyatt) – a devoted Liberal – is also visiting for the holiday period; however, Polly and Lyman are staunch Republicans, and Reagan supporters. Once the sisters were very close, having written a comedy series together decades earlier. Silda is still proudly Jewish, and hates how Polly has become a ‘goy’ (a derogatory term for a Christian) with her wealth, and now even celebrating Christmas.

       Presented almost as a Christmas offering, Brooke presents to her family, a chronicle that she intends publishing; it concerns Brooke’s late brother, Henry, and a secret, heart-breaking event in the family’s past. How will her gift be received? With the parents’ political reputations and class status at stake, this vivid, murky reminder is not welcomed.

   

The excellent costume design was by Jennifer Prosser, who perfectly chose colours and styles to match the characters wearing them. There were lots of extra touches, such as the Palm Springs’ Tennis Club the insignia being sewn onto the blazer pocket, and various tennis garments.

Most families have a skeleton in the cupboard, but in this case there are several, indelicate secrets that no one really wants to discuss, and what better time to drag them out than Christmas? With a magnificent writing style, and several very different characters, Baitz feeds the audience a little at a time, so many of the family secrets.

The director, Barry Park has been nominated for, or won, several Finley awards. Mainly for the shows he has directed; whether a dark drama like this, or a light-hearted musical production his talents shine. Barry has learnt his theatre talents in all departments, and proudly employs the superb old-fashioned skills that are too often missing these days. Being very much respected, Barry has no trouble gathering the best of casts. This play demands a cast with first class diction, an American accent and clever pacing, as the whole story and its credibility relies upon the dialogue and finely tuned interaction.

The caustic sarcasm between the sisters is at times brutal, but to the audience, darkly funny. Polly with her glitz and her down-to-earth sister have great chemistry between them. The father, who gives the impression of being a loving, and caring man, in a second can turn icily cold and stubbornly narrow minded.

The two adult children have had complex lives since leaving home, but in their case, the audience can read between the lines and by interpreting the subtle nuances in their fine performances, learn the truth of the relationships.

A tricky play to present, but with the supreme acting and fine production, this is an admirable drama and memorable night at the theatre.