Of the praise Goodman Theatre deserves for its Chicago-area premiere of Jon Robin Baitz's “Other Desert Cities,” much belongs to casting director Adam Belcuore. His decisions suggest not just a keen eye for talent — which in this production is considerable — but also a keen awareness of the power of vocal timbre to define character and relationships.
I refer specifically to the vocal shadings of Tracy Michelle Arnold (in her long overdue Goodman debut), Deanna Dunagan and Linda Kimbrough. Each of them has a certain huskiness that suggests not only relationships (daughter, mother, aunt) but their individual histories.
In a sense, their voices reflect the aftermath of the battles each has fought with depression, alcohol and her own conscience.
And that's only one element of director Henry Wishcamper's admirably executed (with the exception of some curiously counterintuitive staging in the second act) and marvelously acted production.
An examination of family dynamics though the prism of politics, “Other Desert Cities” is a smart, artfully crafted, funny play populated by articulate, multilayered characters. They have serious issues, opposing political views and an enormous amount of respect and affection for each other. That's what makes “Desert Cities” such a delight.
Yes, Baitz aligns characters along party lines, but he refuses to demonize either side. That would be too easy. Instead, he offers us imperfect people, who perceive imperfectly and who sometimes act on those misperceptions. And that gives the play its resonance.
The time is Christmas Eve 2004. The place is the sprawling Palm Springs home of actor-turned-ambassador Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly. Lyman is played by a pitch-perfect Chelcie Ross, stately in his understatement and convincing in his emotional restraint. The formidable Dunagan plays Polly with a toughness tempered by love. Slender as a reed and strong as an oak, Dunagan glides across Goodman's stage with all the surety of a seasoned politician's wife.
Republican Party stalwarts and best friends of Ron and Nancy Reagan, Lyman and Polly have retired from politics and retreated to their desert sanctuary, an upscale abode protected by a 10-foot hedge that offers only a mere sliver of a mountain view.
An enormous flagstone fireplace dominates Thomas Lynch's tasteful, California chic set featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, an enormous Christmas tree decorated with coral-colored ornaments that match the too-small chair and an extra-long couch, which could accommodate the entire Wyeth family were they so inclined.
At this particular moment, however, they are not so inclined.
Daughter Brooke (the ever-watchable, authentic Arnold), recovering from a serious bout of depression, returns to her parents' home to inform them she has penned a tell-all memoir revealing what Lyman and Polly would prefer remain hidden. The book centers on oldest child Henry, an anti-Vietnam War activist whose involvement in a radical organization contradicted his parents' long-held commitment to law, order, loyalty and discretion. Henry's suicide after he was implicated in a deadly Army recruitment center bombing ensured that the divide was never repaired.
Applauding Brooke's news is Aunt Silda (a caustically comical Kimbrough, in another performance of razor-sharp timing), a recovering alcoholic and lifelong liberal currently enjoying the hospitality of her conservative sister and brother-in-law. Refereeing this “thermonuclear family war” from the sidelines is Trip (a wry, empathetic John Hoogenakker), Brooke's brother, a reality TV producer whose adult life has been spent as family peacemaker.
Lyman and Polly, their grief still evident, are aghast at their daughter's announcement. In publishing it, Brooke betrays their family, they say. They will love her, but she will lose them.
Brooke argues that if she doesn't publish her book, she betrays herself and the brother to whom she intends to give voice. And as the neediest member of the Wyeth clan, Arnold convincingly portrays Brooke's vulnerability as well as her fierce defiance.
The debate over the writer's responsibility to tell her story as she perceives it and her obligation to those who might be impacted by her tale is a compelling one. It's one more element that makes “Other Desert Cities” such absorbing theater.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.