“In a bold step outside of musicals and light comedies, Workshop has taken a chance with a more serious dramatic piece, and the payoff is a moving, thought-provoking, and occasionally unsettling production which closes on a hopeful note.”
As always, I will open by disclosing that I am a frequent director and member of the Board of Trustees for Workshop Theatre, which is of particular importance in the case of Other Desert Cities. Organizational affiliations aside, I strive for neutrality and objectivity with all of my reviews, and do my best to put on blinders concerning friendships and professional connections with cast members, performing companies, etc. That said, here’s my take on the production, which runs through Sunday afternoon at Columbia College’s Cottingham Theatre.
Under the skilled guidance of Jefferey Schwalk, who makes his Columbia directorial debut, this finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama comes to glorious, heartbreaking, and oft-hilarious life through the work of a uniformly strong and experienced cast. While known for quality and high production values, Workshop has set a new standard for itself and its audiences with this distinguished and compelling drama/comedy which spends the first quarter of the show providing subtle exposition through a series of intelligent wisecracks and bitingly witty exchanges, gradually morphing into a dystopia of family secrets and suppressed resentments. Unless you were lucky enough to grow up in an extremely happy and conflict-free home, you’re likely to recognize at least some of the dysfunction, which makes Other Desert Cities relatable to almost everyone. (Seriously, while the script is brilliant, it could be mildly to moderately triggering to those with unresolved family-based emotional wounds. There’s no physical violence onstage, but as far too many of us know, words can sting much more than a slap to the face.)
The plot is a straightforward one, so I won’t risk creating spoilers with an in-depth synopsis, but the basics are that Brooke Wyeth (Dell Goodrich) is a writer from NYC, visiting her childhood home in California for the first time in six years. There she encounters her acerbic mother, Polly (Debra Kiser), who openly criticizes Brooke’s liberal politics and presumably humble lifestyle. Brooke’s father, Lyman (Bill Arvay), is a former B-list cowboy/detective film star who has made a name for himself as a GOP politico representing the “old guard Hollywood” brand of conservatism. Clearly based on the Reagans, Polly and Lyman both reference time spent with “Ron and Nancy,” and drop a few more right-wing names throughout the script, with Lyman presenting himself as the more reasonable and decent parent while Polly revels in her dragon-lady persona. Polly’s brother, Trip (Marshall Spann), and fresh-out-of-rehab aunt, Silda (Resi Talbot) complete the family circle, as the quintet attempt to spend a pleasant Christmas Eve together despite their differences. Looming over the holiday is the shadow of Henry, the deceased third Wyeth sibling. As with most families thrown together at the holiday season, age-old irritants quickly surface, and resentments are only somewhat tempered by the Yuletide spirit. While substance abuse doesn’t directly drive the plot, drugs and/or alcohol are frequently consumed, subtly contributing to the aura of desperation each character brings to the situation. Through the course of the show we discover more than a few hidden psychological scars, a couple of turnabout motivation revelations, and a second-act reveal that forces the audience to rethink prior assumptions about the entire family. If you’re looking for a morality tale with clearly-defined “good guys and bad guys,” you won’t find it here. Each of the Wyeths has secrets, and everyone shows the capacity for cruelty and kindness, often within the same sentence or two.
The performances are uniformly solid, with Goodrich’s Brooke as a particular standout. The events unfold from (presumably) her point of view, and Goodrich wrings pretty much every emotion out of her character as the story progresses. (Having seen and admired her work for years, I must say that this is one of her strongest roles to date.) Brooke is the adult child who never fit in with her family, which Goodrich clearly conveys without ever resorting to melodrama. Part of what makes Other Desert Cities so impressive is its commitment to stark realism, and the cast never flinches or sugar-coats the subject matter. Arvay’s commanding stage presence and imposing physique lend themselves perfectly to the ascot-sporting benevolent patriarch whose explosions are few and far between, but Vesuvius-like when they do occur. Kiser’s performance dovetails nicely with Arvay’s, bringing a constantly nagging but easily dismissed balance to the parental team. One can easily envision them having (perhaps unknowingly) having raised their children by the “good cop/bad cop” technique. As Silda, Talbot creates a sassy, aging peacenik with flower-child sensibilities. While battling her own demons, Silda serves as an advocate for Brooke, yet holds a few of her own cards out of sight. Having seen her in mostly musicals and comedies, I was most impressed with Talbot’s dramatic acting chops. As does Goodrich, she takes on a character that could easily drift into caricature, and portrays a three-dimensional human being whose life choices took her down a different path than the one her sister chose. Spann’s Trip, who exudes a friendly enough persona, is arguably the only glue binding Brooke to the rest of the clan. At times cynical, and at others genuinely hopeful, Spann artfully captures the spirit of a young man who has accepted his mundane yet lucrative life as the producer of a courtroom reality show. Given that Lyman’s film career was financially rewarding but undistinguished, it makes sense that Trip would see himself as having similarly “succeeded” in show business, and Spann subtly incorporates touches of Arvay’s aura of undeluded self-satisfaction. The script has each of them acknowledging that his work is anything but high art, yet neither approaches this admission with shame or resignation.
On the technical front, the unit set, designed by director Schwalk and Patrick Faulds, is fully realized and realistically furnished. Not only does the family room appear cared for and complete, it features various books, works of art, and bric-a-brac contributed by the cast (including a painting by the late Gerald Floyd, a Columbia theatre icon.) This touch of personalization will likely go unnoticed by most, but I suspect it provided an extra element of actor familiarity with the space, which added a layer of believability to the performances. Another nice touch is a series of framed movie posters depicting Lyman’s silver screen days. Costume Designer Alexis Docktor brings her well-established skill to the production, with an outstanding use of color, dressing Brooke in shades of grey and black, with the rest of the cast in bright pastels and primaries. Brooke is the only family member not living behind some manifestation of a façade, and freely admits to having been hospitalized for depression, while the others (at least initially) suppress and hide their respective dark experiences. Lighting and sound are ably handled by Dean McCaughan, who does a particularly nice job of side-lighting the small section of the outdoors glimpsed through the room’s French doors, and Stage Manager Jeff Morris keeps everything moving at a steady pace while coordinating a prop-heavy show.
Other Desert Cities is almost flawless, but I would be remiss not to mention the minor issue of occasionally having found the more intimate moments of conversation a bit difficult to hear. Cottingham Theatre’s acoustics are not ideal, and the actors perform without mics, so if you want to catch every word, I would suggest taking a seat somewhere around audience center or closer.
In a bold step outside of musicals and light comedies, Workshop has taken a chance with a more serious dramatic piece, and the payoff is a moving, thought-provoking, and occasionally unsettling production which closes on a hopeful note. It may not be “happily ever after,” but by the epilogue, it looks as if the Wyeth family may finally be at peace with itself.
Tickets for Other Desert Cities may be purchased online at Workshoptheatre.com, or by calling the box office at (803) 799-6551.
Frank Thompson is proud to serve as Theatre Editor for JASPER.