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Theater review: Stellar cast makes Tony Award-winning play its own

Brooke Wyeth has returned to the Palm Springs home of her Old Guard Republican by way of Hollywood parents for Christmas and three hours into the visit things already are heading toward “thermo-nuclear family war.” The eternal friction between Brooke and her mother, Polly, is exacerbated by the news Brooke is finally publishing her second book. Absent any hints about its subject, Polly fears the worst, and her suspicions are confirmed. Brooke has written about the absent member of the Wyeth family, her older brother Henry.

“Other Desert Cities,” which opened Thursday night at the Playhouse, is more than just a drama about a family on a long Christmas Eve’s journey into a night of drinking and fighting. For all the wicked humor that Jon Robin Baitz invests in Act 1 of his Tony winner and Pulitzer finalist, when the hammer comes down in Act 2 the playwright delivers a riveting confrontation with a memorable payoff.

Director Julie Ahasay has assembled as fine an ensemble of actors as we have seen on stage in Duluth, and that cast, even more than this excellent script, demands your attendance.

On the stage, each theatrical family is theatrical in its own way. With the Wyeths the women are all writers, and the men are an actor and a producer. The women use their craft to verbally assault each other while the men, in just one of several ironic facets to this play, try to refrain from actually taking action or producing an opinion. ”

Other Desert Cities” is set a century ago in 2004, when the illusion of privacy tenuously remained and a family secret did not inevitably end up as something people could read “in the Internet.”

What started out as a novel, has become a memoir, and by the time we understand what Brooke has written, the why becomes equally clear. Her book is much more therapy than it is an exercise in truth telling. I like how Erin McConnell plays Brooke as several shades stronger than the character is usually played, less defensive and more self-assured, erasing any sense of desperation and making the death struggle with her mother more of an even match.

This Brooke knows she will never get her parents’ approval, but holds out hope that perhaps their acceptance is possible. But Brooke assumes that she is exposing her family’s deepest and darkest secret, and she has forgotten the importance of understanding that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know. What remains to be discovered are the consequences for writing and publishing her book, and how much a parent can be expected to sacrifice for their child.

“I don’t like weakness,” declares Polly, a screenwriter driven by the need to rewrite both the future and past lives of her children. Sharon Salo infuses her character with deliberation and control, apparently incapable of raising her voice or saying anything that does not sound like profound disapproval. Most tellingly, this is a woman who once reduced Nancy Reagan to tears. Polly declares “Families get terrorized by their weakest member,” but in the final analysis I do not think her nominee is the character who best deserves that honor.

Lyman, Brooke’s father, is caught between his grief and his love as his family disintegrates before his eyes, desperately looking for “room to navigate.” Kevin Walsh makes Lyman’s anguish and his reluctance to deal with the contrary feelings of his wife and daughter palatable. The role of Lyman was originated by Stacy Keach on Broadway. Keach is a bear of a man, reminiscent of John Wayne or James Arness, whereas Walsh cuts a slighter and gentler figure as Lyman, so that we are somewhat stunned when he raises his voice. But like every other member of this family there are untold depths to be revealed. Ultimately, it is in the performances by McConnell and Walsh that this production creates its unique identity.

Silda Graumanm, Polly’s sister and former writing partner, is also an alcoholic who just relapsed after five years of sobriety. Sometimes opposites attract and sometimes they are just born into the same family. Ellie Martin’s flamboyant and sharp tongued Silda thoroughly enjoys each and every salvo she sends toward her sibling, whether Polly is in the room at the time or not. She is also the shifting sand on which Brooke has built the foundation of both her book and her reconstituted life.

Trip, Brooke’s younger brother, has created a nightly court reality television show, “Jury of Your Peers,” where celebrities sit in judgment of common folk. Of course, Brooke and her book are being judged by her family, and Trip is left in the middle of the family meltdown. As much his mother’s son as Brooke is their father’s daughter, Trip is less than thrilled to be caught between the two sides, as his dry humor readily attests. The key component of Rob Larson’s performance is how he delivers his frequent pleas for sanity, or at least a pretense of familial harmony for the holidays, with a clear sense of the utter futility of his efforts.

The impressive living room set designed by Kevin Seime is so immense, with the large wooden beams towering above and all that faux stone work painted by Laurel Sanders, that the audience is tricked into thinking they are seeing this play in a more intimate setting than usual. Two details of the set design speak to Seime’s attention to detail. First, there is actually a ledge in front of the fireplace. Second, there is a wooden door which is only used once in the entire play, there just so the other characters can hear it close.

It is impossible not to hear echoes of what happened in Isla Vista, Calif., last week in the story of the Wyeth family. At the same time, the play’s equivocation of the Iraq War with Vietnam rings rather hollow, and it is erroneous to give Silda a free pass on her liberal critique passed off as humanism. Reagan conservatism and the ideology of the Tea Party might be kindred spirits, but it would be erroneous to equivocate them. The Old Guard did not lets the zealots take over the party; the zealots crashed it.

In the final analysis, I do not think that Brooke is really rebelling against her parents and any sense of parental abandonment. Polly’s motherly love is too stifling for that. Besides, the person who abandoned Brooke was her brother Henry, her best friend whom she loves far too much to blame for his own self-destruction. Not when mom and dad are True Believers, standing there wearing their conservative values on their sleeves, and just begging to be targets for liberal wrath.

One thing I admire about theater in Duluth is that in addition to getting local productions of award-winning shows, we get unique versions created by the director and cast.

“Other Desert Cities” is a prime example of the high quality of theater we get to enjoy in this community.

Lawrance Bernabo needs 31 more reviews to make it an even 200, not that he will remember to keep count.


If you go

What:  “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz

Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: 7:30 tonight and Saturday, and June 5-7, 2 p.m.  Sunday and June 8

Tickets: $25 adults, $15 youth, students

For information: (218) 733-7555 or