There’s nothing quite like watching a play that is so good and true and real that one squirms in one’s seat.Yes, that would be me, as Other Desert Cities dredged up memories of one Christmas Eve long ago when, to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture With Cannons crashing in the background, my dad, my brother-in-law, and I crossed the proverbial Rubicon and verbally duked it out over the Vietnam War.
Watching an excellent play does that to a person, and Portland Center Stage’s latest production, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz is such a play. Reminiscent to those of us who remember the Vietnam War, this play deals with secrets, lies, denial, and the deep divisions of post 9/11 backlash–culturally, politically, and within the family unit, Playwright Baitz set it in Palm Springs because he sees the city as “a battleground at the end of America, where all the promise of the West has been frozen in time.” Tasty.
It is Christmas Eve Day 2004. Brooke (D’Arcy Dersham) has just arrived at her parents’ home from New York City to celebrate the holiday. Along with Brooke there are mother, Polly (Barbara Broughton), who at ten in the morning is already drinking heavily and haranguing her daughter; father, Lyman (Ned Schmidtke), a retired actor whose politics are somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun; brother, Trip (Joel Reuben Ganz), with his successful Hollywood TV series; and left-leaning aunt Silda “We’re just Jews who lost our accents” Grauman (Susan Cella).
As the day before Christmas warms up, the audience learns about Brooke’s six months in a mental institution and of Polly’s subsequent martyrdom. But wait, there’s more. Brooke has written a second book and she wants her family to read it. All very good, until they learn it’s not just another novel, but a memoir about that great family taboo, What Henry Did/What Happened to Henry.
All hell breaks loose. The parents come unglued; Trip sees both sides of the situation, but really just wants love and peace and someone to share a joint with him; freshly detoxed Aunt Sildy wants a drink. (Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.)
But the play and its presentation are so much better than its parts. Excellent acting and production aside, this is a riveting drama so filled with eloquence, truth, and wisdom about the human condition that it rips us open and hangs us out to dry.
During the first act, Sildy comments, “Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby.” By the end of the play, having been expertly led through the mazes of truth, prevarication, and shifting sympathies, I am left wondering what the truth really is.
Other Desert Cities is directed by Timothy Bond, producing artistic director of Syracuse Stage. (Bond also spent several years as associate artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) It runs now through March 22 on the main stage at PCS’s Gerding Theatre.