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Other Desert Cities — Walnut Street Theatre

Desert Interior Elephants of several sizes lurk around the handsome, perfectly appointed living room Todd Edward Ivins designed for the Walnut Street Theatre’s equally stylish production of Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play, “Other Desert Cities.”

     Except for the youngest in the Wyeth family, a man who lives remarkably well on his own terms considering his lineage, everyone in the Wyeth home harbors some secret, grudge, or question that might be mentioned but generally goes undiscussed.

      The largest elephant by far is a mystery surrounding a family member we don’t see, the Wyeths’ oldest child, a son who was involved in a political crime and is believed to have committed suicide 30 years before the scenes in “Other Desert Cities” take place.

       Henry’s actions, perpetrated in protest of the Vietnam War, his politics, and his death are verboten subjects in the Wyeth home. Early in Baitz’s play, the Wyeth daughter, Brooke, has to correct her mother, the formidable Polly, when, while chattering on about her life, she mentions she has two children. “You had three children. Three,” Brooke says coldly and pointedly.

       Brooke feels a need to talk about her brother, who she nominates her best friend. She wants to know details about his death she thinks her parents can supply. Confusion about Henry’s passing have been costly to Brooke. She copes with chronic clinical depression managed by pharmaceuticals, and she  has spent six years in a hazy limbo immobilized by her illness and unable to practice her craft, the Wyeth family’s craft, writing.

       In her sadness and wonder, her personal torture, about Henry, Brooke becomes compelled to tackle the elephant no one is entitled to point to in front of Polly. She does so by writing a book about her family, specifically how her parents affected her brother and caused him to rebel recklessly, commit a dreadful act, and perish.

       The book will now be a companion elephant to the mystery about Henry. When Brooke arrives at her parents’ Palm Springs home for Christmas 2004, the first thing she does is make copies of the book for her mom and dad to read. The parents, who have been concerned that Brooke has been blocked from writing during her six-year bout with deep depression, are happy Brooke has a new work ready to go to press. Polly jokes she is relieved she won’t have to be asked any more whether Brooke is  a “one book wonder.” The mood changes from festive and congratulatory to dense and accusatory once the subject of Brooke’s tome is revealed.

      At this point, the book becomes an ironic factor in the structure of Baitz’s play. Brooke’s work, and not Henry, takes over as the focus of the Wyeths’ Christmas weekend and the focal subject of Baitz’s script, and “Other Desert Cities” becomes less frothy, less lively, less interesting.

       The change in the play’s mood and tone doesn’t damage the work. It continues to engage. But you have a feeling akin to when a bulb goes out. Some energy has dimmed.  “Other Desert Cities” seems to be strongest and most entertaining when topics, including Henry and Brooke’s book, are mentioned in a hodgepodge of witty free-flow. The incidental revelation of facts in the high-tone clever conversational mode the Wyeths practice to a person, including Polly’s dependent sister, Silda, is fun and bracing to encounter. Through it, you learn about the characters and begin to see the “elephants” acknowledged. Headway is made. Each of Baitz’s lines advances his story further and tells you something germane. Repartee is brisk and involving even when it is punctuated with daggers.

       Once Brooke’s manuscript, which for most of the first act lays like lead, hot off the press in clean, white boxes on the Wyeths’ coffee table, is taken by Polly and her husband, Lyman, to their separate sanctums for reading, “Other Desert Cities” and the Walnut production take a serious turn. The book is about Henry, his crime, and his suicide and purports to address questions to which has always  sought but never received satisfactory answers. Silda has obviously worked with Brooke on the work. Polly and Lyman are taken to task in it. Personal stakes seem to be raised for everyone, except again for Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, who seems immune to all the Wyeth intrigue and drama. Instead of a panoply of topics, spoken of in random but productive ways, the book, called “Love and Mercy,” and what it means to every one, will dominate a much more directed, much more concentrated conversation.

       The difference in intensity is noticeable. The lightness that prevailed in “Other Desert Cities” is gone and replaced by a darker, more serious, and more dramatic set of sequences that hold attention but seem more businesslike and less fun. The play and production take on a one-note feel that doesn’t spoil anything because the one note is engaging and worth hearing, but which robs “Other Desert Cities” of some spirit, some aura of sharpness that disappears and doesn’t return.

      Walnut director Kate Galvin and her cast are uniformly remarkable at bringing “Other Desert Cities” to life. Galvin not only assembled a cast of pros. She gave them freedom and license to be at home with their characters. Each character is interesting and worth getting to know. The Wyeths and Silda might be troubled in significant ways, but they are wonderful company, and Krista Apple, Susan Wilder, Greg Wood, Matteo Scammell, and Ann Crumb never wear out their welcome.

      As “Other Desert Cities” proceeds family, and what should remain public and private within it, becomes a major theme.

      All of the Wyeths are notable. Lyman is a famous movie star known for his war pictures and Westerns. He was a close friend to Ronald Reagan and becomes an ambassador during Reagan’s administration. (He’s a Republican, another elephant!) Lyman’s diplomatic appointment in considered important because it indicates forgiveness of a kind for Henry’s political crime. Polly and Silda are sisters who wrote a series of popular “Gidget”-type movies called featuring a teenage beach babe named Hillary in the 1960s. Polly has since worked in television and settled into being a socialite and a doyenne of conservative political events. Trip, the youngest Wyeth, produces an inconsequential television show that features celebrities as jurors in civil court cases. He is teased for the low level of his program, but to Trip’s credit he doesn’t care. He is being creative and making a fortune. Art is not his interest. He relinquishes high standards and high-mindedness to his parents, aunt, and sister. Brooke is a writer who has had one best-selling book but has had a writer’s drought since publishing it. “Love and Mercy,” which has a publication date and will be serialized in The New Yorker, is her return to major writing.

      The family dynamics also take on importance as Brooke’s book and its ramifications are discussed. Silda is an alcoholic who has been in and out of rehab. She doesn’t have a dime from her “Hillary” royalties and lives in gracious, responsibility-free style on the generosity of Lyman and Polly. Brooke is also dependent. Although she says she maintains her Brooklyn apartment and lifestyle on her own, she is obviously subsidized by her parents, who supported her entirely during the six years of her paralyzing depression. Polly and Lyman have been living down Henry’s act for decades and, while continuing to be in touch with Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale, remain for the most part cocooned in the Palm Springs paradise. Her ordeals have given Polly a spine of steel and the freedom to say anything she likes no matter how withering it is. As played  by the excellent Susan Wilder, she speaks with charm and class, so her barbs are coated in a casual delivery while remaining barbs.

      Galvin is astute in the way she organizes and presents Baitz’s mix. She gives each character and personality rein. She also encourages each to revel in his or her verbal skill and to appreciate the similar talent of others, even when you are being skewered by Polly or watching Silda throw caution to the wind and say what she believes is the truth even if eviction or another stay in rehab might the reward for her honesty.

      Galvin’s production is as intelligent as the people who populate Baitz’s stage. Yes, the energy level diminishes in scenes that center on Brooke’s book, but that lowering of tone is inherent in Baitz’s play.

       I don’t know how Galvin could have found a better cast. To a person, the troupe performing “Other Desert Cities” at the Walnut is so natural, you feel as though you’re visiting a family and watching it co-exist in their extraordinary desert home on a holiday weekend instead of a group of actors portraying characters in a play.

       Susan Wilder gives a gem of performance as Polly. Though candid and demanding, Polly is never rigid. Wilder endows with an ease of both wit and posture that doesn’t diminish Polly’s fierce strength but shows it is the trait of a fully-developed human who can use the same set of talents to be gracious and funny and the kind of woman you hope will want to have lunch with you and be your friend.

      Polly is direct. She says what she means and she pulls no punches. She is against the publication of Brooke’s book and spells out the consequences of Brooke going ahead with her print schedule as it stands.

       Polly also has standards. There are reasons why she has adopted the politics she espouses and travels in the circles she does. Baitz, in a fit of political correctness that would earn grins from the Hollywood crowd, undercuts Polly and Lyman’s beliefs at one point, but Wilder’s Polly shows the character belongs among people who honor personal responsibility and want to pay their own way and not be bothered with complaints politicians attempt to allay with a quick fix.

      Wilder is wonderful because she portrays a complete woman. She doesn’t play part of Polly or take Polly line by line. Wilder gives her character consistency and dimension. You see Polly”s strength, but you also see how solicitous she can be with Silda and how much she hopes Brooke’s mental health is in check so her daughter can lead a productive life.

       Although Brooke is arguably the lead character in “Other Desert Cities,” Wilder’s performance makes Polly the centerpiece of the Walnut production. It is Polly’s reactions, Polly’s words, Polly’s point of view we want to hear, even when we disagree with one of her attitudes or stances. In addition to all else she does with such polished aplomb, Wilder reads Baitz’s line without wasting or sentiment or innuendo. Hers is masterful work.

       Greg Wood shows great sensitivity as Lyman, a man who has lost one child and is wary about alienating a second. He is both the diplomat and entertainer that Lyman had to be during his careers with the State Department and in the movies. Most of all, he is a man who wants to keeps his family together.

      Wood conveys the pain and stress the imminent publication of Brooke’s story causes him. In one expression he can embody a man who is angry at his daughter’s betrayal and literary portrayal of him, who is upset at possibly having to shun this daughter, and who doesn’t want to relive the embarrassment he endured at the time of Henry’s offense.

      While maintaining the paternal role throughout, Wood shows Lyman’s vulnerability and his desire to keep anything pertaining to Henry in the past.

        Krista Apple lets you see how torn Brooke is about all she has set in to motion. Her desire to know what happened to her brother is a compulsion. Her grief over Henry has cost her years of her young adult life and prevented her from working or leading a conventional life. Apple conveys how much Brooke loves where she blames. Her parents are dear to her, but so it is the truth as she sees it. Apple has to defend Brooke’s work and show her curiosity while displaying deep affection for people she is about to wound. This is a tough acting assignment, and Apple manages it with intelligence and expressions that tell you the depth of what she feels.

       Ann Crumb once again brightens a stage every time she’s on it. Her shrewd line readings as Silda are amusing whether they are creation tension or cutting through it.

        Silda knows her place in Polly’s life. She loves and is grateful to her sister for letting her lounge slothfully in Palm Springs instead of letting her wallow in poverty or take residence at a rehab clinic.

        She also loves her niece and late nephew. Crumb shows Silda’s range of affection while establishing her as one who, like Polly, will say what she sees as the truth no matter what chips fly in her wake.

        Silda is the softer Polly, the one whose humanity and acceptance of foibles show in everything she does. She is weak, addictive creature who can make fun of her addiction and her position as a dependent in her sister’s home.,

        Crumb has some wonderful moments in which she pours or serves another character a drink. Each time, she sniffs the liquor in the glass. She says the scent of alcohol is like Chanel No. 5 to her.

        Matteo Scammell looks as if he actually lives on the “Other Desert Cities” set. Never does this talented actor indicate in any way he is playing a character. His posture is loose and comfortable. He is immediately comfortable in any plush chair in which Trip roosts.

      Trip is the reasonable character. His truths are the clearest because Trip can be the most objective. He is much younger than Henry and Brooke. He was only five when Henry died so he does not fill the loss, the sentimentality, or the mystery the other characters do, the ones who knew and loved Henry.

       In Scammell’s capable hands, Trip is the best adjusted Wyeth. He is clear-eyed about everything about his life. No matter how many taunts he gets from his toney family, he refuses to apologize for producing television tripe like “Jury of Your Peers” or denigrate his easygoing Southern California lifestyle.

       Trip isn’t haunted the way Brooke is. He loved the privilege his parents’ wealth afforded and his ability to now provide equal luxury on his own.

        Trip is a shrugger. He nonchalantly flicks off hardships and dilemmas. He has a sound and healthy perspective and will not be mired in his family’s angst. There can be a dozen elephants in the Wyeth living room. They won’t mean anything to Trip.

       To the credit of Baitz and Galvin, and especially Scammell, Trip can be aloof without seeming shallow or distant. He is an integral part of his family. He just doesn’t see a reason to be agitated by something that happened 30 years ago. Like his parents and aunt, he takes a position on “Love and Mercy,” but unlike them, he is has no great stake in what will happen if Brooke’s volume is or isn’t published.

        The title, “Other Desert Cities,” has two references. One is the literal nod to the sign that directs people to Palm Springs. One arrow points to the posh resort. Another sends you to other desert cities like Indio, which Polly mentions disparagingly. Baitz’s play has political overtones, and war is discussed, so the other reference is to Iraqi and Afghan battlegrounds that would have been active in 2004.

        Baitz’s play has many twists. You learn a lot as you, like Brooke, delve into all aspects of the Wyeths and how they live. I guessed the biggest surprise, but it was no less dramatic when I learned my suspicion was right.

         “Other Desert Cities” feels like two plays. I enjoyed both, but I prefer the champagne tone of the one that precedes Lyman and Polly reading Brooke’s book. I half wished there was no book, and revelations would come as bright conversations led to them. I understand the book serves as a catalyst for getting Henry’s story told. I just preferred it when Baitz was employing theatrical sleight of hand over when he took a more direct course.

        Todd Edward Ivins’s set evokes Palm Springs and Palm Desert homes and is gorgeous. Ivins not only gets the structure and big pieces like the open pit fireplace with the brass chimney right but little details. He endows the Wyeths with taste that would be appropriate for them. Best of all, no matter how magnificently elegant the Wyeth home is, Ivins also made it comfortable and welcoming.

      Thom Weaver enhances Ivins’s craft with his subtle but appropriate lighting. Colleen Grady could not have made better choices for the character’s costumes. Lyman wears a tie at all times. Scammell’s Trip looks neat and comfortable in his casual outfits. Polly’s tennis togs and outfits were exactly what a youthful Palm Springs matron would wear while choices for Brooke show more of a urban taste. Silda gets the splash of color in the free-fitting garments that suit her personality.

        “Other Desert Cities” runs through Sunday, March 2 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. some Sundays. No Thursday matinee is scheduled for February 20. No 7 p.m. Sunday show is for February 16 or March 2. Tickets range from $85 to $10 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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