I took few notes during Saturday night’s absorbing performance of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” because I didn’t want to miss what the fabulous cast, thanks to Jennifer Van Iderstyne’s spot-on direction, was doing.
The payoff was tears standing in my eyes.
I didn’t feel that way at the beginning. Baitz does some clumsy exposition work in Act 1 (example: when one person explains to another something that other person already knows, you know it’s really for the audience’s benefit), but once we got the lay of the factual and emotional landscape, I was in.
Brooke Wyeth (Ellen Cribbs) has come from the East Coast to visit her California home, where staunch Republican mom Polly (Pat Brady) and dad Lyman (Rick Reed) welcome her for the 2004 Christmas holidays.
Brooke’s present to the family? A memoir, chronicling the family’s involvement with the personal/political struggles and suicide of the oldest child, Henry.
Complicating the situation are the trials of Aunt Silda (Patti Noble), a recovering alcoholic living in the shadow of her high-powered sister, Polly; the efforts of the youngest child, Trip (James Gavin) to play peacemaker; and Brooke’s ongoing recovery from a stay in a mental institution.
The dialogue explores sensitive issues such as memory, family loyalty, privacy and reputation. No one has all the truth, and just when you start believing one person’s version, new information changes your mind. And in the play’s penultimate scene, you can hear the proverbial pin drop as yet one more secret is revealed.
Van Iderstyne’s blocking is exemplary. Nobody sits still for long. Someone is always trying to escape or move in for the kill.
Robin MacDuffie’s handsome set reflects the Wyeths’ wealth. Producer Kathy Friscic has a crack tech team in Joe Fava (costumes), Elise Charlebois (light/sound) and Tommy Swimm and Donald Mealy (managers).
And this cast. Gavin is fine throughout, but he scores especially in Trip’s long conversation with older sister Brooke, one in which he lays out all options so she can choose the one that will satisfy everyone. It’s a nearly impossible task.
Both Silda and Polly are alcoholics, but Polly is a functioning one. Silda, not so much. Frumpy, disorganized, at the mercy of Polly and Lyman (sometimes resentfully so), she stands on the sidelines, cheering and criticizing. Noble superbly captures Silda’s sense of irony and pathos.
Cribbs — she of the wonderful speaking voice — has a daunting role. Obsessed with doing justice to the memory of her dead older brother, Brooke is willing to sacrifice the reputation of the living family members in her tell-all book. Anyone who has ever been tempted to write a memoir knows the challenges of walking such a fine line. Cribbs credibly shows Brooke trying to do exactly that.
Brady and Reed are completely convincing as a privileged couple who have, nonetheless, experienced loss, heavy responsibility for family members, and blows to their reputations. Polly’s sense of entitlement and Lyman’s fascination with his movie star past can make them hard to take, but Brady imbues Polly’s steeliness with just the right amount of vulnerability, and Reed makes Lyman appealingly earnest to keep his family intact. Flawless work by these two.
And a fine night in the theater.
‘Other Desert Cities’
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Players, 12 S. Church St.
WHEN: Through March 25
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: 518.382.2081, or civicplayers.org
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