BWW Review: The 'Old Guard' vs. the 'Me Generation' in OTHER DESERT CITIES

PCPA closes out their season with Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz's critically acclaimed familial drama. Other Desert Cities opens as a tableau of white-privilege discontent: two politically left-leaning adults struggle to find common social and political ground with their wealthy, conservative parents during a Christmas visit in Palm Springs. As the bickering intensifies into the airing of genuine, irreparable grievances, Other Desert Cities communicates an edgy depiction of a troubled household struggling to overcome the pain and embarrassment of a disturbing family history. Directed by Roger DeLaurier, PCPA's production features a talented cast, including Melinda Parrett, Jessica Powell, Dan Kremer, Kitty Balay, and Matt Koenig, and portrays the pride, disgust, tension, and desperation of wounded people whose ability to forgive is tempered by pride.

In the tumultuous period of the early 2000s, the political ideology gap between the wealthy Regan-era Republicans and their liberal-leaning artist children was aggravated beyond polite, agree-to-disagree discourse by starkly contrasting positions on U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. For Baitz's Wyeth family, politics and lifestyle preferences clash during their Christmas holiday. Matriarch Polly Wyeth (Powell) is a cold, passive aggressive power-bitch with a vodka-soda and pearls. Her husband, Lyman (Kremer), a retired character actor of early television, is a master of maintaining forced positivity despite Polly's manipulative, adversarial nature. Polly's sister, Silda (Balay), a recovering alcoholic, lives with the couple in their stylish Palm Springs home. Silda is colorful and gauche, a point of contention for her uptight sister. The son, Trip (Koenig), a tacky-reality-show producer with one foot out the door, tries to offer well-intentioned but divested levity to keep the mood light, while daughter Brooke, the East-coast black sheep with a history of depression and suicidal tendencies, verbally spars with Polly.

The first act lacks the intensity of the second, and despite capable performances, Other Desert Cities treads water until the true depth of the family disorder is revealed. However, the play marches into engaging fervor once the family is forced to face the impending publication of Brooke's memoir, which details the treasonous criminal acts and subsequent suicide of the Wyeth's oldest son, a teenage delinquent struggling with mental health issues. With the Wyeth's dirty laundry about to be on display in The New Yorker, the pace of the play pushes harder--the family dynamic of snarky passive aggression spirals precariously into what will either result in painful, but productive, verbalization that will heal the rift between the generations; or cause irreversible damage between family members.

One disappointing aspect of this production was the choice to use Silda as a source of comic relief; a daffy, flamboyant presence in the Wyeth's manicured desert home where even the Christmas gift-wrap matches the furniture and accent pieces. While a play this enmeshed in emotional turmoil benefits from lighter moments, Silda, as a severe alcoholic in recovery, is too complicated a character to function on a single note. It is certainly in-character for Polly and Lyman to provide a home for Silda to ensure her sobriety while simultaneously ignoring the gravity of her addiction--the Wyeths have a tendency to handle emotional delicateness with a sense of denial, as though Brooke's depression and Silda's alcoholism are inconvenient side-effects of character weakness rather than actual problems. Yet, the entire production downplays Silda's character from barely-controlled addict to jolly lush, and the lack of structure regarding her complicated relationship with family and alcohol undermines the percieved intensity of Silda's betrayal when it's discovered that she's been feeding her own version of the family tragedy to Brooke in order to vindicate herself when the story reaches the public.

Acted capably and with empathy, PCPA's production of Other Desert Cities is a thought-provoking portrayal of a family attempting to heal latent wounds while balancing the divergent social norms and political leanings of (what Lyman calls) "the old guard" and (what Polly calls) the "Me Generation." Baitz's play shows the consequences of outing a painful family secret against the intricate and convoluted political backdrop of post-9/11 America.

Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Roger DeLaurier

Septermber 18th-October 3rd
@ The Marian Theater, PCPA, Santa Maria

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From This Author Maggie Yates

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