Last night I had the pleasure of watching Other Desert Cities at the Herberger Theatre in Phoenix. The tight and very powerful drama was written by Jon Robin Baitz and performed by the Arizona Theatre Company.
The play revolves around the Wyeth family who are centered in the desert community of Palm Springs, California, in the years following the Reagan presidency, a family which resembles the Reagan's in several respects. The father, Lyman Wyeth, is a retired B-movie actor who was later appointed to an ambassadorship by Reagan. The mother, Polly Wyeth, is a former writer of B-movies who quickly assimilated into the political life of her husband. Lyman and Polly are the ideal conservative couple, very waspish (even though Polly is Jewish) and very country club.
Also in the family are Aunt Silda, Polly's sister and former writing partner, and the Wyeth's two grown children - Trip and Brooke. Silda is a recovering alcoholic who provides the rare but very necessary moments of comic relief. Trip is the producer of a reality television show that is either scorned or ignored by the other family members, and Brooke has gotten away from her domineering parents and lives on Long Island in New York where her life is "measured by seasons."
Brooke Wyeth is a successful writer who has just finished a family "tell-all" that focuses on her older brother, a radical from the protest movement of the 1960's who committed suicide as his life was unravelling. It is Christmas, and Brooke has brought loose-leaf copies of her book home for the family to read.
And thus is set an emotional drama where the intensity never lets up.
(Several years ago when my youngest, Tim, was in grad school he wrote a one-act play for a national competition that made its way to the finals in Washington, DC. Pa Rock, a puffed-up toad of a parent, followed along to watch the competitive plays performed at the Kennedy Center. Tim and I and his writing professor went to a play that received a special recognition. After it was over, the professor gave me his unvarnished opinion. The play was, he noted, an "angry mother" play, and he went on to complain "I am so tired of 'angry mother' plays.")
Other Desert Cities is every inch an "angry mother" play. Anne Allgood snaps, seethes, and explodes as Polly Lyman. She is so mad for so long that it could have become tedious if she ever allowed her fire to simmer. But Polly's fire stays hot as the flames are constantly fanned by family members and even Polly herself.
This play, however, goes well beyond an angry mother. Lyman Wyeth, ably played by Lawrence Pressman, has to navigate a complex set of pressures as he struggles to live with Polly, deal with his growing insignificance as an actor and a politician, understand his grown and annoyingly liberal children, and age gracefully. Polly and Lyman also have the self-imposed duty of maintaining the family secrets. the most clandestine of which is not even known by Silda, Brooke, or Trip.
Aunt Silda (Robin Moseley), struggling with sobriety, is angry with her life and her domineering sister. Trip (Will Mobley), who lives down the road in Los Angeles, is angry with Brooke for stirring the family passions with her memoir - knowing that she will eventually fly off back to New York and leave him to deal with the mess. And Brooke (Paige Lindsey White) is angry with her parents for what she sees as their creating a life of rigid class and bias that eventually led to her brother's suicide.
It is an angry, angry household - and it is Christmas - and the intensity never lets up.
Kudos to the Arizona Theatre Company for an outstanding performance of Other Desert Cities. It is a hard ride, but a damned good one.