Encore Michigan

All signs point to “Other Desert Cities” at Farmers Alley

Review February 07, 2016 Marin Heinritz

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–The play title Other Desert Cities references a road sign on eastbound Interstate 10 outside Palm Springs, California, indicating where the freeway is headed.

The desert is full of mirages, and Christmas in Palm Springs is sunny, hot,  and cheerful during the day and turns bitterly cold at night. It’s a place full of contrasts. As is the Wyeth family, with its many facades and illusions, central to Jon Robin Baitz’s clever and darkly comic award-winning drama now playing at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo.

It’s 2004, post-9-11 and nearly two-years into W.’s invasion of Iraq. Writer Brooke is home from New York for the first time in six years to celebrate Christmas with her parents, Polly, a Texas Jew turned Hollywood writer, a woman eerily reminiscent of her friend and role model Nancy Reagan; and Lyman, a B-list actor turned ambassador for Ronald Reagan; as well as her aunt Silda, a leftist recovering drunk who once wrote screenplays with sister Polly; and her brother Trip, a reality t.v. producer.

They’re irritatingly over-privileged and not terribly likable or even sympathetic. And yet the way they spar, love, undermine and outwit each other is compelling.

When Brooke, a “vaguely suicidal” and self-important depressive, reveals that her long-awaited second novel is actually a memoir, an excerpt of which is to be published in The New Yorker and may blow the lid off a terrible family secret relative to her brother Henry’s suicide decades earlier, Christmas eve dinner at the country club is called off, and layer upon layer of lies and betrayal come to light.

Essentially, the play questions what is true and how we come to believe what’s true—about events and each other—and shows the violence inherent to families–a la Edward Albee. It also exposes the fact that the self-righteous are rarely right.

In other words, the dysfunctional Wyeth family is a metaphor for our country and its increasingly hostile political climate.

“I say we all live with our divergent truths,” says Trip, the real truth teller on stage. He calls out everyone, offers real insight and resolution, and in so doing is the most likable and trustworthy character on stage. As such, Curtis Edward Jackson gives one of the most powerful performances of the night.

Laurel Scheidt’s Silda gets some of the best lines by far, but her cartoonish facial and physical gestures overplay what would pack a larger punch delivered with more subtlety. Similarly, Kate Thomsen’s sharp enunciation and hyper on-edge gestures would work better in a larger space. Michael Scheidt exudes an appropriate warmth, especially with Thomsen, but doesn’t quite pull off the authority necessary to match Sharon Williams’ power as Polly, a deliciously complex and extraordinary character come to life. With her pearls and creased trousers, her sibilance and platinum helmet hair, she is control incarnate. You love to hate her and ultimately come to have real compassion for her and the “indentured servitude of having a family” she’s endured.

The action unfolds here in an intimate thrust stage amid a set by Dan Guyette that calls to mind the Palm Springs desert in an overwhelmingly terra-cotta pseudo mid-century modern design. It’s uncomfortable being this close to so much pain, and this, like many of director D. Terry Williams’ choices, is deliberate and effective.

The emotional stakes are incredibly high, and the twists and turns reveal lessons bigger than those of a single “absurdly white” and wealthy family. Undoubtedly, they will become even more resonant as this strong production’s run continues.

Click show days, times and details here