Vintage Theatre presents Other Desert Cities
A review by Marc Shulgold
Ah, the dysfunctional American family – where would modern theater be without it?
You’ve probably seen it, or should we say, endured it. Who’s Afraid of … Osage County. Angst-filled folks at war with each other, with their children, with their parents, with themselves. Liquor is poured and consumed, tears are shed and wiped away, secrets are kept and then melodramatically revealed. And as the final lights are dimmed, all that’s left are silent, empty stares onstage and sheer exhaustion in the audience.
But boy, it’s fun.
At least, that’s the case with Vintage Theatre’s intimate production of Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz’s well-traveled tale of a family torn apart by secrets and lies and political bickering. This draining drama demands controlled stage direction, under-the-top acting and an audience’s buy-in for the bizarre storyline. Thanks to Bernie Cardell’s brilliant handling of his top-notch cast, this saga of a super-dysfunctional clan succeeds where it should realistically have failed.
The story’s concept goes something like this: Troubled daughter Brooke, a struggling New York novelist, comes home for Christmas – home being her archly Republican parents’ comfy digs in the sunny, artificial world of Palm Springs. She brings her newest book, which turns out to be an unconcealed biography of her family and its central tragedy: the suicide of Henry, the black-sheep son. Brooke, we’re told, seeks her folks’ approval.
Sure, it’s an absurd assumption on her part that Polly and Lyman would give their depressive daughter’s tell-all book a green light. But then, the parents’ shock and anger form the core of the play – along with the equally intriguing reactions of Trip, the kid brother now grown into a wishy-washy young man, and Silda, a semi-sober realist who is also Polly’s sibling rival.
As one would expect, there are zingers hurled at all comers from all corners. Feelings are not spared, be they cheap shots by Brooke and Trip aimed at the deeply felt political stance of Mom and Dad, or, of course, the parental retorts thrown back at their two smart-talking lefties. Dark family secrets are revealed, leaving everyone open-mouthed, revelations that are scattered among the inevitable confrontations. Those shouting matches are crafted by Baitz with a fine mix of wit, wisdom and unbridled vitriol – and all delivered with conviction and impeccable timing by the five-member cast.
The action centers around Brooke, who’s given a three-dimensional, unexpectedly sympathetic fleshing-out by Molly Killoran. Her finest moment comes not in all that perpetual raving and sobbing, but in a long, beautifully handled silent stare. It’s a demanding role, which requires her to convincingly present her character’s sense of righteousness in defense of an utterly cruel exposé of the people she professes to love. But Killoran pulls it off.
So, too, does Jan Cleveland, whose poised Polly never sinks into stereotype or self-pity. This, we discover, is a strong woman, totally misunderstood by her surviving children. Quiet strength also forms the backbone revealed in the Lyman of Paul Page, who shows the widest range of emotional response to Brooke’s brazen memoir. His fatherly love is palpable to us, if not to his daughter. Both parents display an understandable pride in their lives and their beliefs – attributes that keep them from becoming clichéd California-tanned caricatures, and, ultimately, allows them to emerge with courage and laudable devotion to family.
Adding immensely to this story’s many layers are Luke Sorge’s Trip and Libby Rife’s Silda – he, a quiet though intelligent commentator of the family crisis, and she, an unashamedly outspoken and occasionally spot-on observer. Both actors bring depth and subtlety to their speechifying, serving as effective foils to the hysterics that surround them.
In addition to creating an engaging stage production, Cardell is also credited with the set design, a minimal arrangement of couch, fireplace, Christmas tree and, oddly, a rear wall festooned with 20 picture-less picture frames. Those frames may be empty, but the stage is filled with crisp, if occasionally off-color dialogue, brought to three-dimensional life by a superb cast and director.
Unless you’re someone who’s afraid of familial sparring – not to mention Virginia Woolf – this is a production worth seeing.
Vintage Theatre’s production of Other Desert Cities continues in weekend performances through March 1 in the company’s small theater at 1468 Dayton St., Aurora. Tickets are $24 in advance and $28 at the door. Information: vintagetheatre.org or (303) 856-7830.