Other Desert Cities
ACT, A Contemporary Theatre, in downtown Seattle is currently performing the award winning play "Other Desert Cities." The play begins by taking us, the audience, to a United States a decade ago through audio news clips of the era.
I almost forgot where we as a country were in 2004: The Iraqi invasion or liberation (depending on your political ideology) was in full swing, George W. Bush was re-elected president defeating the now Secretary of State John Kerry, and the fear and pain of 9-11 was still very palpable.
Once the emotional and physical debris and dust of the Twin Towers settled and the stark realities of war began to infiltrate media outlets, American life and its political landscape was changing rapidly into a polarizing direction. In an excerpt from an interview with playwright Jon Robin Baitz in the publication "OnStage," he comments on this cultural shift that played a major part in the conception for the play, "There was a sense that there had been a sea change within the conservative movement and that there was a kind of nostalgia for the old Republicans. This new kind of conservatism was fascinating to me...it seems to be very aggressive..."
Baitz was no stranger to the surroundings of white privilege. He was born in Los Angeles, as a youth his family moved abroad; upon their return to the United States as a teenager he attended the affluent Beverly Hills High School. His play is a political and societal debate in which each of his characters, the Wyeth family, represents a slice of American societal philosophy; the pragmatist, pacifist, militant and traditionalist. "Other Desert Cities" has a narrative that blends themes that are not that unfamiliar with the playwright’s own upbringing of privilege, Hollywood and politics.
The setting for the play is at the Wyeth’s palatial mid-century mod Palm Springs home, their living room to be exact. Palm Springs was once Hollywood’s quick retreat from the bustling Los Angeles. Baitz describes this desert oasis and its inhabitants as, "these anachronistic Americans living in a kind of cinematic library of old Hollywood movies, old versions of Western success."
And in a nutshell this describes the play’s pearl-wearing Nancy Reagan-esque matriarch (Polly Wyeth) performed by the talented Pamela Reed ("Parks and Recreation," "Kindergarten Cop") and retired Republican politician and stalwart patriarch (Lyman Wyeth), played by Kevin Tighe ("Lost," "Emergency"). Think of John McCain with Ronald Reagan charisma.
It is Christmas Eve, but I guarantee you that this play is far from a Hallmark channel special. Libation-infused racial slurs, political banter, drug, rehab and divorce accusations are all kosher holiday topics for this American-Jewish-Texan-Californian-old Hollywood-political-Republican family. The story is really of an estranged daughter’s (Brooke Wyeth) homecoming after six years of being away, played by the Seattle award-winning Marya Sea Kaminski. The veteran cast delivered the zinger-rich lines like well-seasoned pros.
On the surface, especially in the first act, one would find the play to be a modern family comedy with an undertone of dark passive aggressive dialogue. As the play progresses, we discover more vulnerable characters through stirring performances that are filled with a life of pain, sorrow and secrets. "Other Desert Cities" is a must-see witty drama that will remind all of the complexities of families no matter how wealthy or famous.