BWW Review: Desert Theatreworks Presents a Brilliant Production of OTHER DESERT CITIES
Desert Theatreworks, Palm Desert's community theatre, has been aiming high in many of its recent shows, and once again, hits the mark. Its current production, Jon Robin Baitz's OTHER DESERT CITIES, is yet another triumph, and another must-see for the newly designated 501(c)(3) theatre company, now finishing its third season at the Joslyn Center's Arthur Newman Theatre.
OTHER DESERT CITIES, an absorbing, although verbose comedic drama about conflict in a highly educated, dysfunctional family, takes place in Palm Springs in 2004. After a largely humorous first act, the second act increases the stakes and the tension to the breaking point, which, as in a Greek tragedy, results in the audience's catharsis. However, unlike in a Greek tragedy, the playwright implies that the family is brought closer together by the events depicted. Coachella Valley residents will recognize many of the references, but that is hardly the only reason to attend the play.
The story concerns long-guarded secrets in the Wyeth family. For the first time in many years, Brooke Wyeth (Daniela Ryan) has returned to spend Christmas in the desert with her aging parents (Lyman and Polly, played by real-life husband and wife Jason and Marjory Lewis) her brother, Trip (Luke Rainey), and Polly's sister, Silda (June August). Lyman is a former actor, ambassador, and head of the Republican National Committee, and he and Polly are friends of the Reagans and Bushes. The secret is that their oldest child, Henry, then college-aged, was involved with a group that killed someone in a Vietnam era bombing. Brooke's new memoir, about to be published and excerpted in a magazine, is sure to reopen old wounds and make life hell for her parents.
OTHER DESERT CITIES is not an easy play to produce. The meaty female roles, especially, could descend into melodrama if played in a heavy-handed manner. On the other hand, downplaying the vicious barbs hurled back and forth risks having the audience miss the resentment the characters feel towards each other. Director Lance Phillips-Martinez and his able cast strike the right balance to convey the almost unbearable pain bubbling under the Wyeth family's surface - pain that constantly threatens to destroy their veneer of normality.
Each of the five actors navigates brilliantly through the shark-infested waters of a talky script that alternates between humor and pathos. During the first act, the rapid delivery helps ameliorate the playwright's verbosity. During the second act, all the actors pivot brilliantly to drama. There is not a weak link in the cast; the actors may not technically be professionals, but no one would know that from their performances.
Especially when OTHER DESERT CITIES is performed for local audiences, the lighting and set design must be perfect; the playwright emphasizes the ambient light in his stage directions and everyone in the audience knows what the mountains look like in the setting sun. Mid-century modern architecture is, of course, a running theme in the desert, which means that the Wyeth's house must look the part in any Coachella Valley production. Set designer Bruce Weber, who is new to Desert Theatreworks, property designer Priscilla Lawson, and the uncredited lighting designer (Tanner Lieser operates the light board) perfectly convey the feel of living in Palm Springs in a mid-century home with sliding glass doors leading to the patio and pool, and with a spectacular view of the mountains. One aspect of the set design deserves special mention: The first few rows of the audience sit where the pool would be located. However, rather than having the characters gesture vaguely towards an unseen pool, Mr. Weber has placed trompe l'oeil pool tiles on the vertical edge of the stage. At one point Brooke and Trip sit on the stage's edge barefoot, dangling their feet into the non-existent water. This struck me as an especially imaginative use of the auditorium's structure.
This top-notch production of OTHER DESERT CITIES deserves to sell out. It is a fine example of what community theatre is capable of presenting in the right hands.
The rest of the creative team and crew consist of Ron Phillips-Martinez (producer, sound, hair, and makeup), Claudia Gomez (stage manager), Michele Dobson (costumes), Tanner Lieser (sound design and sound board), and Violet Feath and Jenny Ferguson (assistant stage managers).
OTHER DESERT CITIES will run through April 17, 2016, at the Arthur Newman Theatre, in the Joslyn Senior Center, 73-750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert CA, 92260. Show times on Fridays and Saturdays are at 7pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.dtworks.org, in person at the Joslyn Center, and by phone at 760-980-1455. General admission is $26; senior admission is $24, and student admission (with i.d.) is $16. Groups of 8 or more should call the box office at 760-980-1455.
Desert Theatreworks' summer series starts on May 20, 2016, with SMALL SERVINGS (May 20-21, 2016), and continues with LOVE, SEX AND THE I.R.S. (June 17-25, 2016); WAR OF THE WORLDS (July 22-23, 2016); and THE REALISTIC JONESES (September 16-24, 2016). The 2016-2017 series consists of MURDER ON THE NILE (November 4-13, 2016); FRANK SINATRA MY WAY - A CHRISTMAS BASH (December 9-18, 2016); 45 SECONDS FROM BROADWAY (January 27-February 5, 2017); THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (March 9-19, 2017); and NEXT TO NORMAL (April 21-30, 2017). Season tickets are currently available.