Friday, July 22, 2016

Other Desert Cities

 Published in The News Tribune, July 22, 2016

Bonnie Vandver as Silda, James T. Patrick as Lyman, Toni Murray as Polly, Cameron Wates as Trip, and Silva Goetz as Brooke. Photo by Toni C. Holm
Olympia Little Theatre quotes the New York Times’ description of Jon Robin Baitz’s Pulitzer Prize nominee “Other Desert Cities” as a “witty, deeply enjoyable family drama.” Such a description could easily mislead people into expecting a light comic-drama, and this play is anything but light comedy. There’s comedy, yes. Biting, witty, sarcastic word play between five family members whose sophisticated banter balances on the edge of outright warfare.

Lyman Wyeth (James T. Patrick) and his wife, Polly (Toni Murray) are the epitome of wealthy Americans wasting away past their prime in self-satisfied pseudo comfort. Both retired, he was a B-movie cowboy star famous for long death scenes, and she was a writer along with her cowriter sister Silda (Bonnie Vandver) of a long-running television series. The Wyeths are Republican party functionaries. Silda, a recovering alcoholic, is politically liberal, as are the Wyeth children, Brooke (Silva Goetz), a successful writer suffering from depression, and Trip (Cameron Waters), a reality TV producer.

It’s Christmas 2004, and Brooke has come home from the East Coast to visit her family. She has brought with her a manuscript of her soon-to-be-published book, an explosive memoir that reveals family secrets and threatens to destroy whatever family unity still remains.

The setting is a suitably beige, ultra-modern desert home beautifully designed by Christopher Valcho that highlights the false comfort and respectability of the elder Wyeths and contrasts with the internecine family dynamics.

The writing is intelligent, and the story structure is classic, building steadily toward an unexpected and totally satisfying twist at the end.

The ensemble cast is solid. Patrick plays the family patriarch as a calm and reasonable peace-maker who quietly seethes with anger. Murray plays Polly as proud and sure of herself but more willing to let her anger show than is her husband. Waters plays Trip as laid-back, humorous, and wise beyond his years. Vandver is outlandish and wonderful as the outspoken Silda, who is disdainful of her sister and brother-in-law, and who is one-hundred percent on Brooke’s side and encourages her to not back down on publishing her memoir – which her parents desperately want her not to do. And this brings us to Brooke, the catalyst of all the drama. Goetz plays her as a mass of nervous ticks, quickly going from throwing witty barbs to tossing lethal bombs. She is smart, angry, mistrustful and filled with self-doubt, all of which she displays with powerful physical acting that crowds up to the edge of over acting without crossing the line.

“Other Desert Cities” is not an easy play to watch. It starts out as a sophisticated comedy and quickly becomes weighty. There is a quietly intense scene near the end that had audience members the night I saw it holding their breath in anxious anticipation. That’s good writing, good acting, and good direction from Toni C. Holm. At approximately two-and-a-half hours, it is a bit wearying, but worth sitting through. The one major fault is that the actors do not always project clearly, making some of the dialogue hard to hear. The theater does have hearing aids available for audience members to check out, but it would help if the actors wore microphones.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 1:55 p.m., through July 24
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia TICKETS: $11-$15, available at Yenney Music, 2703 Capital Mall Dr., Olympia, 360.786.9484
INFORMATION: (360)786-9484,

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