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Family Bonding

by Zach Tirone

“Families get terrorized by their weakest member” warns matriarch Polly Wyeth in the Broadway production of Jon Robin Baitz’s new play, "Other Desert Cities." This proclamation mines a multitude of layers on what makes being part of a family, well, hard, in what is arguably the best American family drama in the theatre since “August: Osage County.”

In Mr. Baitz’s play, our protagonist, Brooke Wyeth, a successful writer, returns home after a six year absence to celebrate Christmas 2004 with her parents, brother, and aunt. The family members are under the assumption she has written her long-anticipated next novel, but upon arrival she reveals that it is a memoir. This memoir details an extremely pivotal and painful moment in the family involving select members, both present and not. In doing this, she unexpectedly turns the house upside down, forcing each member to analyze and deal with their flaws, both past and present.

The affluent, Reaganite parents Polly and Lyman (played marvelously by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach, respectively) reside in Palm Springs, California; seemingly the effortless state of mind location that bespeaks their retired, successful lifestyle. To complicate issues, they have taken in Polly’s sister, Silda (a ferocious Judith Light), a recovering alcoholic that needs a place to help stay on the wagon. Brooke has her brother, and voice of reason, Trip (a perfect Justin Kirk), to mediate the difficulty of family, especially during the holidays.

Having suffered from years of serious clinical depression, Brooke has rebounded by dealing with select painful family memories, channeling them into the memoir, an action that does not sit well with her parents. Having been in the public eye for many years, Polly and Lyman are terrified of what Brooke’s memoir will reveal and how it will bring up haunting memories of the past.

Directed by Joe Mantello, this dysfunctional family drama succeeds on the quality of the writing. Jon Robin Baitz has crafted intelligent and eloquent characters thrown into a situation that no one saw coming. We’ve all seen intense family dramas before and frankly one might think that everything that needs to be shown has already been. This work proves this is not the case. Other Desert Cities addresses a massive amount of social and personal issues, which are very real for anyone who comes from some type of family that has struggled, whether publicly or privately.

Responsibility for each family member is a main theme that "ODC" addresses. Common questions are addressed, like whose job is it to take care of one another, as we get older do we still need to be taken care of, and after the parents are gone, who fills their role, and with what legacy left behind? The secrets that the Wyeth family keep -- the secrets we all keep -- can either hold a family together or painfully tear them apart. The publication of a family memoir holds up a mirror reflection of that family for the world to see, but can only be seen through the eyes of one member, shaping everyone's narrative through one biased viewpoint.

Another topic addressed in "ODC" is the take on the failed promise of the west for the rich and famous. In sets designed by John Lee Beatty, everything on stage looks nice and comfortable. Sandy, soft, neutral shades of beige suggest the calm of desert life for the final phase of Polly and Lyman Wyeth’s life. The reverse effect is produced though, beginning with their children’s arrival and later through all the character’s brutal revelations during the play’s two acts. Even though all members of the Wyeth family had found success, it was not without dark days and painful memories that each character chooses to deal with in their own ways. When a child visits their parents after they have lived in the real world for enough time, there is the realization that this place, is not “home” anymore. It never will be again, because it is tainted by memories of long ago and, in the case of the Wyeth family, failed opportunities to help those that needed it the most.

“Other Desert Cities” is a landmark play scheduled to run through June 17th. This Lincoln Center production at the Booth Theatre is not to be missed. Stockard Channing’s tour de force performance as the intense and overbearing mother Polly Wyeth is reason enough to spend an evening at the theater. The first Brooke Wyeth, Elizabeth Marvel, will be returning to the role she originated off-Broadway starting on March 6th.

I’ve always thought that a sign of great theater was that after watching the show, you understood something about your life that you didn’t quite know or realize before. In “ODC,” the strong reminder is the scary reality that we are our parents' children, that we will inherit some of their traits whether we like or not. It is how we move through life -- as an individual and as part of a family -- that marks us. Our only way through it, together is to not let our fears terrorize each other, as we are simply trying to do the best that we can with the paths we are given.

Image courtesy of Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

 

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Zach Tirone is a man of many disciplines: writer, actor, director, barkeep, sommelier, foodie, devoted Yankee fan, wannabe dog-owner, general geek. But most of all, he is a human being. Or so he is told. Contact him at zach.tirone [at] theinclusive.net or find him on the interweb @ZachTirone