How well do we know anybody? How well can we know anybody else? Our families are the people we should know best; after all, we spend most of our lives with them. But even they remain essentially mysteries unless they let us look beneath the faces they show to the world or we can develop the eyes to see there.
Jon Robin Baitz's acclaimed "Other Desert Cities," which just opened in an emotionally shattering production at Pioneer Theatre Company, plunges us into the middle of a complicated family with a secret and lets us watch its members learn to know each other better and love and accept the people they find there.
This is one of the richest American plays to emerge recently. First, it offers complex, densely drawn characters that are also witty and clever. And it turns around in a most unexpected, but completely logical, way. At the end of Act I, we think we know these people; Act II develops a different dimension that shows how wrong we are.
The occasion is a Wyeth family Christmas reunion in Palm Springs, Calif. The family hasn't been together in some time. The parents, Polly (Joyce Cohen) and Lyman (Dennis Parlato), formerly worked in Hollywood and became prominent in conservative Republican politics during the Reagan years. Their children, Brooke (Nancy Lemenager) and Trip (Michael Zlabinger), don't share their parents' views, either politically or in most other ways. The play's fifth character is Polly's sister, Silda (Kate Skinner), a glib, acerbic woman who once was Polly's writing partner and is now a recovering alcoholic.
But the play has another crucial character that never appears. He is Henry, Brooke and Trip's brother who was an antiwar activist during the Vietnam War, became involved in a bombing incident and killed himself. Brooke, who is an author, has written a memoir she intends to publish where he is an integral character. She says, "I want to talk about Henry until it makes sense" because he was "most of my world." Her parents are appalled.
Polly says, "You may write whatever you like, but the ice gets thin when it involves we, the living." And Lyman adds, "You insist that we publicly relive the worst time in our life."
If Brooke goes ahead, as Trip says, she has "to accept the consequences of 'art over life,' which … is … losing the trust of the people you love," but if she doesn't, she feels "you are asking me to shut down something that makes me possible."
The ensemble performances in this production are so real that the line between characters and actors dissolves. It's lovely to see Cohen get a role she can inhabit so completely; her Polly is brittle and funny, controlling and fiercely loving all at once. Parlato's Lyman struggles touchingly to bridge the widening gap between the two women he loves. As Brooke, Lemenager adroitly navigates an emotional tightrope, trying to balance loyalty to self and family. Zlabinger's Trip desperately tries to remain the family's voice of reason and sanity. And Skinner's Silda uses her only weapon vindictive sarcasm to mask her own feelings of failure.
Charles Morey's direction tunes unerringly into the family's emotional rhythms, letting the tension ebb and tighten. James Wolk's elegant, sophisticated set and Michael Gilliam's warm desert lighting provide a strong sense of place.
Its ability to let us look beneath the surface of its characters makes "Other Desert Cities" poignant and powerful. The insights it offers may make our own family relationships more understandable.
'Other Desert Cities'
P Bottom line • Pioneer Theatre's inspired, insightful production of Baitz's eloquent play is a knockout. Don't miss this chance to see one of America's best new plays.
When • Reviewed on Oct. 25; Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 9, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 South University St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • Tickets are $25 to $44 with discounts for students and groups. Call 581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information. The play contains adult language.
Running time • 2 hours 15 minutes (including an intermission)