From the first rise of the curtain, expect to be captivated by Other Desert Cities. The new play by New York playwright Jon Robin Baitz wastes no time drawing the audience in.
It’s Christmas in Palo Alto, Calif., and wealthy retirees Polly and Lyman Wyeth are chastising their daughter Brooke for living on the East Coast, so far away from home. Her parents scold her for her absence lovingly but harshly, and in doing so, the fascinating intricacies of the Wyeth’s family dynamic are immediately clear. Here is a group of people with a seemingly boundless capacity to be frustrating, hurtful, even cruel to one another, and yet the love that exists between them is obvious. The Wyeths love each other as a family should: fiercely and persistently.
Fusion Theatre Company’s production of Desert Cities is awash in warmth, wit and lively energy from the very beginning, due in large part to some of the finest acting I have seen on the Albuquerque stage. Joanne Camp dominates the role of Polly, the Wyeth family matriarch, in a performance that is both fearsome and complex. As Polly, she is a commanding presence. She is hard as steel and ruthless when necessary, without ever losing her ladylike Southern gentility. It is a terrifying combination. Yet even in her hardest moments, Camp never loses her grasp on the powerful love and devotion from which Polly’s ferocity stems.
The Wyeths love each other as a family should: fiercely and persistently.
Camp is ably supported strong performances from the rest of the cast, but it is not just the excellent acting that makes Other Desert Cities enjoyable. Playwright Baitz has crafted a witty, engaging play that, in its best moments, deserves a place alongside the classic family dramas of the American canon. Politics, family, mental illness, love, acceptance and forgiveness are all touched upon in Baitz’ adroitly constructed story.
Brooke, the much-harangued Wyeth daughter, has come home for the holidays for the first time after a six-year battle with depression and hospitalization. She has also just completed and sold her first book, and while she is desperate for her parents’ approval, she’s also terrified of their reaction. The book is not a novel, as Polly and Lyman believe, but a memoir detailing a scandal involving Brooke’s older brother and his subsequent suicide. And though she won’t admit it, the book’s publication will undoubtedly threaten the Wyeths' formidable reputation as once-upon-a-time Hollywood stars turned prominent Republican politicians.
She is hard as steel and ruthless when necessary, without ever losing her ladylike Southern gentility. It is a terrifying combination
Politics arise frequently throughout the play, as Polly and Lyman’s harsh conservatism clash with their children’s lefty views ("liberal whining" as Polly puts it). But the family’s politics are merely stand-ins for the deeper issues they are unable to talk about. "I believe that the only way to get someone to stop acting like an invalid is to stop treating them like an invalid," says Polly, a philosophy that embodies both her politics and the way she lives her life. Polly is hard on the people she loves: her daughter, her son Trip, her sister Silda. She wants better things for them. Polly is willfully blind to how damaging her words are to her loved ones, and by the same token, they are unable to acknowledge that her hardness comes from the pain and impotence she feels while being called upon for support over and over again.
Desert Cities is not a perfect play. While in its finer moments, Baitz’ story soars, it too often gets caught in circles like a dog chasing its tail, redundantly hitting the same points, the characters fighting over the same issues. Silda, Polly’s volatile, alcoholic sister is problematic too. Both Polly and Brooke’s relationships to Silda are touching and well-rendered, but Silda herself, played here by Laurie Thomas, lacks dimension. Silda is an inherently difficult character to capture, but both Thomas and director Gil Lazier would have done well to explore more and subtler layers. Finally, and most unfortunately, the ending feels pat. It’s all a little too cleanly resolved at the end. But quibbling aside, Other Desert Cities is an example of top-notch theater being written in our country today, and it is excellently performed by the actors of New Mexico's Fusion Theatre Company.