Suicide, depression, politics — with such heavy themes, it should come as no surprise that Other Desert Cities, PURE Theatre’s spring production, showcases devastating moments of family crisis. But that it delivers just as many laughs — heartbreakingly hilarious zings and snide observations the Wyeth family rockets against one another — makes this show a must see.
The curtain opens on a West Coast casual living room with a half circle couch and wet bar off stage left. Behind two glass doors we see a pink sky, courtesy of clever lighting designer Richard Heffner. The year is 2004 and novelist Brooke Wyeth, played by Cristy Landis, has flown from New York City to Palm Springs to join her family for Christmas. But this is no happy holiday. Brooke, a once promising novelist still recovering from crippling depression, has to tell her family she’s publishing a memoir exposing their deepest, darkest secret — the suicide of her older brother. To add to the conflict, Brooke’s a liberal and her parents are staunch Republicans and former best buds with Ron and Nancy. The political rift causes Brooke’s mother Polly, played with exacting humor by standout Cynthia Barnett, to poke at her daughter relentlessly.
“I think living on the East Coast has given you the impression that sarcasm is alluring and charming. It is not. Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals,” Polly volleys at Brooke in Act I. And from there the verbal swordplay only gets worse. Brooke’s father Lyman (David Loar), a former GOP appointee, doesn’t help the feud, kowtowing to the overbearing Polly again and again.
But if this paints a miserable picture, relax. Playwright John Robin Baitz is a first-rate wit, and his script — a Pulitzer finalist — carefully balances moments of pain with moments of delicious humor. Brooke’s younger brother Trip (Brannen Daugherty) handles much of the comic relief. Outside of the family, Trip his life most together working as a television producer and manages to bring a little perspective when emotions get hot. Daugherty, a PURE Core Ensemble member, plays Trip beautifully. His natural sense of timing helps push the show along in scenes that lag.
And then there’s Aunt Silda (Dana Kyle), Polly’s sister, a recovering alcoholic who’s now living with the family because she can no longer support herself. Silda, a leftie too, has her own wounds and secrets, a matter that she and Polly can’t seem to overcome. Actress Kyle as Silda does a great job of balancing kooky with damaged, and plays it just right for optimum laughs. So, essentially you have five angry, wounded characters, trapped in Palm Springs, at each others’ throats — a stew of wildly different ingredients sitting on a hot burner, waiting to boil over.
And in those scenes, with the full ensemble on stage, is when this cast of thespian veterans shines brightest. Director Erin Wilson (who will also direct PURE’s Piccolo offering, The Testament of Mary) should be credited for coaxing such an honest performance from her players. So honest that audiences should be prepared to feel as if the curtain had been pulled back on their own family holiday. Who can’t relate to those years when all wasn’t so merry and bright?
And yet the production does have one hiccup: the ending. The play builds to an emotional crescendo with Lyman and Polly revealing the real family secret. But after that, the final scenes fall flat. Landis as Brooke, carries these closing moments, but at times her character felt under-realized or muddled. God forbid, but the phrase “what’s her motivation?” did come to mind.
That said, perhaps that’s the only way it could end. What is her motivation? What is anyone’s motivation? Brooke serves as the fulcrum on which the family pivots, and we should sympathize with her. But she’s an emotional wreck, frankly often selfish, and at times, many times, not especially likable. And so is her family. Maybe that’s the point. We’re all a bit like Brooke, a bit like the Wyeths — not all that great. A little messed up, a little self-focused, a little too harsh in the way we treat our family members. Other Desert Cities holds up the looking glass, exposing a very revealing portrait of a lifetime of tiny hurts and darkly funny jabs a family can exact upon one another. And, ending aside, PURE’s cast executes that truth with devastating aplomb.