As with several recent valley productions, Arizona Theatre Company’s Other Desert Cities, currently playing at Herberger Theater Center, gives us a chance to take in the living room set long before the play begins, and what an elaborate piece of work it is. Designed by Ann Sheffield with inspiration, perhaps, from Frank Lloyd Wright, we’re in the cavernous home of the affluent Wyeth family, complete with angled wood beams, a fire place, glass sliding doors that lead onto a spacious back yard patio where you can occasionally hear the birds sing and even a swimming pool at the foot of the stage, all positioned in front of a mountainous, California desert skyline. It’s very impressive.
It is Christmas Eve, though this is not a Christmas themed play, not to mention that both peace and goodwill to all men are going to be the last things accomplished before the play’s conclusion. The Wyeths are Polly (Anne Allgood) and Lyman (Lawrence Pressman), retirees who have chosen to live their remaining days in a kind of secluded, desert exile in Palm Springs. After a very public life as two old-guard Republicans in Hollywood, they were actors who lived their life in the public eye but now wish to live far from the madding Hollywood crowd in the middle of the desert.
Home for the holidays are son Trip (Will Mobley), a young and, by all accounts, successful TV producer of a reality show called Jury of Your Peers, and Polly’s problematic sister Silda (Robin Moseley).
Enter daughter Brooke (Paige Lindsey White) a novelist who has written a tell-all that is about to be published. She’s home for the holidays having flown in from the East Coast after a long absence from family life for reasons that will present themselves throughout the play’s duration. Ideally, she would like her parents’ approval on her work, but whether they like it or not – and chances are they will not – the book will be published, all the same.
For the initial opening moments of the play, the conversation is relatively light and humorous with occasional stabs of acerbic wit. “It’s amazing what you do to entertain yourself in the desert,” remarks dad referring to the not so secret pack of cigarettes he lights up on the back patio when no one else is around. “This not drinking is going to kill me,” states Silda, a recovering alcoholic who has taken up temporary residence in the desert house, and when Polly refers to a Chinese meal as “Chink food” and is somewhat admonished by the daughter for saying it, Polly responds with, “Stop. I don’t have a bigoted bone in my body.”
But things turn considerably darker and confrontational once the issue of the tell-all begins and dark secrets are brought to light. Had things followed a normal family pattern, another person would be there, at home on Christmas Eve, sharing quality time with the rest of the Wyeths, but he took his life several years ago. When Polly refers to her leaving Hollywood because it became a place of “Drugs and lefties whining,” her words are later revealed to be something much closer to home than just a sweeping generalization of the state of the entertainment industry. Their oldest son killed himself, and Brooke has written an exploratory document, as seen from her perspective, about the whole affair, and parents Polly and Lyman are horrified. “I think I successfully demolished Christmas Eve,” declares Brooke.
There’s always a nagging feeling throughout the first half that we’re never seeing everything as we should, like a jigsaw where the picture on the box is about to change once all the missing pieces that you never realized were missing are finally found and put into place. There’s a mystery surrounding the story of the oldest son, and once all is finally exposed, like unhealed wounds reopened, change will come and it will be both shocking and heartbreaking, not just for mom and dad, but for everyone.
By the end of the play we have such a clear vision of the missing son and the circumstances behind his suicide you almost expect him to walk on at the end and take a bow with the rest of the cast. Performances from all are exceptional, and even though there are moments when the continuous confrontational manner of the emotionally charged dialog threatens to sink into melodrama, you can’t help but remain riveted by what you’re hearing.
There’s a moment when Lyman states that he needs to finally say something about the suicide and looks to his wife for approval before speaking. When Polly finally nods her head it’s a moment of goose-bumps. If you’re slouching in your seat you’ll find yourself suddenly sitting up. The moment of anticipation is a killer, and whatever you think you might have guessed about the oldest son’s death, you’ll be wrong. What you hear is a heartbreaker. And as testament to the power of the scene, during a moment’s lengthy pause at the opening night’s performance, you could hear a pin drop.
The play suffers from the occasional odd blocking where a character has her back to the audience while talking, essentially restricting our view of others, plus writer Jon Robin Baitz adds a short epilog that feels both clumsy in its staging and largely unnecessary, like a last minute tag-on, but at least it serves as a way of letting us know what happened to characters we care about long after that fateful Christmas Eve where souls were once laid bare in a home in the middle of another desert city.
For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the ATC website.