“…to control everything, every bit of information, every gesture, every pose, that was the way to live. Order. Precision. Discipline.”
Christmas, 2004, Palm Springs, California. Welcome to the immaculate home of the Wyeth family. Father Lyman is a retired actor respected in the Republican establishment. Mother Polly carefully preserves the family appearance. On this Christmas, daughter Brooke returns home for the first time in years. She bears a memoir focused on a horrible family tragedy from her childhood. In the late 1970’s the Wyeth’s oldest son, Henry participated in the bombing of a military recruitment center during which a homeless man was killed. Henry subsequently committed suicide. The entire family was damaged. The parents from the devastation that their son could be involved in something so horrible that also damaged their political reputation. Brooke has suffered from severe depression, her younger brother Trip, a young child at the time, has grown into an abrasive young man who tries not to focus on a past he barely remembers. And Aunt Selma, Polly’s alcoholic sister, has become deeply estranged from her sister.
Brooke’s memoir, while helping her heal, drives a red-hot knife into the carefully constructed world of her family. During the course of this pivotal Christmas, truths are emotionally flayed shattering long held beliefs. The Wyeths are forever changed in the course of this one day.
Jon Robin Baitz’s script is nuanced and emotionally draining. He carefully balances the devastating revelations with well-needed humorous moments. Joe Mantello's direction flows at a natural pace, neither rushed nor lingering. The two hours and 30 minutes running time feels exactly right.
John Lee Beatty is to be commended for designing the Wyeth’s living space so perfectly. The décor is perfect for Palm Springs and its white palette is so reminiscent of the show place homes of people like the Wyeths who clearly do a lot of entertaining. Yet the immaculate room has a gentle irony given the amount of dirt that it hides.
The five members of the Wyeth family are fully realized human beings. It would not be surprising to see multiple Tony nominations for all are deserving of accolades. Judith Light is brassy as the recovering alcoholic Aunt Silda. Yet behind the zingers lies a woman deeply supportive of her niece. Matthew Risch also lets fly several barbs as the younger sibling, Trip. Trip is too young to remember much about his older brother, and Mr. Risch shows both the impatience of a young man who wants to live in the present, and the supportive mediator between his sister and his parents.
Elizabeth Marvel is a whirlwind of manic emotions as daughter Brooke. Trying to write what she needs for her own emotional understanding, she still craves her parents’ approval for what is an assassination of their carefully fought façade of normality. Brooke is genuinely seeking the redemption of Henry at the expense of the parents she blames for his death.
As the parents at the center of Henry’s tragedy, Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing give rich performances. Mr. Keach shows the consummate politician mask, ever maintaining the rock steady persona he has created through the years. When that façade breaks, so does the audience’s heart. Ms. Channing is a wonder as Polly. A deeply dislikeable woman at first, seeming to be all about the image and a disbelief that neither Selma nor Brooke can be trusted to be cured. Once she gives into her emotions that she has carefully hidden from view for two decades, Ms. Channing provides the catharsis at the center of this family drama.
Other Desert Cities is being performed at the Booth Theatre in New York City. For tickets please visit www.telecharge.com.