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BWW Reviews: OTHER DESERT CITIES Makes Radiant Regional Debut at Circuit Playhouse

Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina opens with the famous phrase: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Playwright Jon Robin Baitz explores that Anna Karenina principle in his drama, Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Tony Award nominee for Best Play. It's an intricate script and the regional premiere at The Circuit Playhouse does it justice.

This five-character, two-hour tale is played out in the den of an upscale Palm Springs home. --A substantial, aesthetically pleasing set by award winning scenic designer, Douglas Gilpin. (The cast wears interesting character-defining clothes that aren't too "costumey" thanks to designer Kathleen Kovarik.)

Though this story is character-driven, disclosing the plot would be a spoiler. Here's the general gist:

It's Christmas, 2004, and troubled novelist, Brooke Wyeth (Kim Justis) and her brother, Trip (Christopher Joel Onken) are visiting their parents, Polly (Irene Crist) and Lyman (Jerry Chipman). Their aunt Silda (Ann Marie Hall) is staying in the family home as well.

Prone to sarcasm about politics and personalities, these attractive, witty people start to goad each other Noel Coward style. Sharp wits and even sharper tongues lurk beneath their Ultra-brite smiles. At first, it's wickedly amusing to watch them lob sweeping judgements back and forth across the generation gap like hand grenades. But holiday cheer dries up when they start dredging up the past. Old hurts surface, and each new rapid-fire revelation adds weight to the story and raises the stakes. Collateral damage piles up. By the time the over-arching conflict is in full bloom, we find ourselves watching a heavy play about the kinds of problems extraordinary privilege can't solve. Compounding their problems, each of these characters, like those in the fable of the blind men and the elephant, believes in and defends his or her own incomplete, subjective version of the truth.

The script is crafted to make us grow a bit fonder of each character before the the next layer of conflict is exposed. By the time darkest clouds have amassed (intermission, of course) we're invested enough to want to weather the storm with them and root for all of them. In this story, as in life, the past is irreparably broken, yet people search for some sort of closure. Brooke's (Kim Justis') masterfully-delievered monologue at the end of the play provides a clear, time-lapse snapshot of her significant character arc.

Kudos to Director David Landis for assembling such a convincing cast! Though each character is extreme, they are still very relatable. This cast dynamic is so close-knit, they seem more like a real family than an ensemble. These are some of our best local actors. There are rich, memorable performances across the board. Not just when they're speaking, but also during their long silent stretches, listening and reacting (which in this script, due to its structure, every actor has a lot of.)

Other Desert Cities runs through February 9 at The Circuit Playhouse, 51 S. Cooper Street in Midtown Memphis. For more information or to make reservations, please call 901-726-4656 or purchase tickets online.

PHOTO by John Moore.

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From This Author Caroline Sposto