By Barbara B. Covell
For the TODAY
Ahhhh, the heady taste of spirited family dynamics. Unresolved loss, clashing political beliefs, geographic separation and a sharp divide in social values. Couple these forces with the post 9/11 social agenda and the war in Iraq, and you have a recipe for explosiveness and humor — unique to family ties.
This is the formula for author Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” which opens in Newport this Friday, April 14, presented by the Red Octopus Theatre Company.
The play premiered on Broadway in 2011, receiving nominations for a Pulitzer Prize and five Tony Awards in 2012. This show promises to deliver the whole package — a sizzling script with humor and grief, a breathtaking set and an unresolved fractured family story.
For the Newport production, first-time director, Barbara Berge has assembled a sensational ensemble cast to portray the Wyeth family, gathering in Palm Springs for Christmas Eve.
The year is 2004. Daughter Brooke returns to her parents home after six years in New York as a writer for magazines. Parents Lyman and Polly embrace their liberal-minded daughter’s return with anxious hesitation. Lyman is a former Republican ambassador and Hollywood actor, Polly is a prickly perfectionist who once wrote MGM comedies with her sister, Silda. Silda is just out of rehab after an alcohol-fueled relapse. At Lyman’s invitation, she is moving into the Wyeth’s Palm Springs home. Trip is Brooke’s spirited, charming younger brother who adds humor and support to his fragmented sister. Divorced and recently hospitalized for depression, Brooke’s emotional stability is threatened by memories of older brother Henry, who was her confidante and best friend. But Henry’s legacy remains the unspoken subject with Lyman and Polly.
Brooke confronts her parents and announces her just-completed memoir revealing Henry’s suicide after his involvement with the radical underground during the Vietnam War. Their actions to bomb an army recruitment center resulted in the death of an innocent.
The story continues with the disclosure of a decades-long held secret which could bring embarrassment and world exposure to Lyman and Polly.
“This is a play about families and the complexities of conflict and love,” Berge said. “Love wins out, because love brings unity to a family.”
Berge said she selected this script because of the themes, the multidimensional characters, the powerful ending, and humor.
“This is intricately written to convey the value of truth,” she said. “There is a cost to keeping secrets and an inherent cost in telling them.”
The cast of stellar actors individually and collectively portray a “house divided,” yet deliver a credible, cohesive family unit with their chemistry. The pacing is rapid-fire and the blocking makes full use of an amazing set. It is Berge’s vision of a Palm Springs living room, replete with a picture window of the Coachella Valley. Stephan and Josh Lawrence assisted in the set design with Lawrence constructing their physical interpretation.
Lyman is expertly played by Rhodd Caldwell with Bonnie Ross skillfully portraying the acerbic Polly. Their dynamic is affable, yet slightly edgy, and on-guard with daughter Brooke’s return to the family nest. Corvallis actor Cathleen Hockman-Wert nails the complexities of Brooke. It is a pleasure to watch her facial expressions and tightly wound emotions. Justin Atkins is Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, a charmer and the “glue” in keeping peace within the family. Atkins is a consummate actor, toning down his usual command of the stage in order to maintain his good-natured character. And what joy to watch Linda Capshaw as Silda, as she brings humor and deep emotional grit to the truth making.
Original music by Milo Graamans is featured during the bridge for scene changes and the break for intermission. Ron Miller manages the lighting and visual effects; Barbara Perkins, Kate Brown and River Benson are stage managers. Darcy Hogan manages publicity.
The timeliness of the political bantering is refreshing and funny. This is a very rich play with many layers to reflect on.
“Other Desert Cities” opens Friday, April 14, with 7 pm performances every Friday and Saturday and 2 pm matinées each Sunday through Sunday, April 30. The play contains some strong language.
Tickets, $15 for adults and $13 for students and seniors, are available by calling 541-265-ARTS or online at www.coastarts.org.