Last week I finally had the chance to see a play I’ve been anticipating since last summer, when I was first made aware that Other Desert Cities (written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Henry Wishcamper) would be a part of the Goodman Theatre’s 2012-2013 season. And let me tell you that it was well worth the wait! This play not only met my expectations, but far exceeded them and is, in fact, the best play I’ve seen in some time.
The play, which takes place on Christmas Eve 2004, is centered around the Wyeth family: conservative parents Polly (Deanna Dunagan) and Lyman (Chelcie Ross), and their liberal children Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and Trip (John Hoogenakker), along with their (fellow liberal) aunt Silda Grauman (Linda Kimbrough), all of whom have gathered at Polly and Lyman’s home in Palm Springs to celebrate the holiday.
From the outset it is clear that Brooke and Trip come from completely different schools of thought than their parents, and have entirely opposite philosophies. Lyman is a staunch GOP supporter, a former actor who went into politics and later on became an ambassador. His wife, Polly, is herself a former actress and screenwriter who now counts people like Nancy and Ron -- presumably the Reagans -- among her friends, her inner circle. To them, it seems, every decision made by the Republican Party is justified. It seems as though to question any call made would simply be unthinkable. And, one gets the feeling that even if they did question some of what was going on, they would never do so publicly, since they firmly believe (as we quickly find out) that appearances trump all -- even reality -- be it in public or private life.
Brooke and Trip, on the other hand, fall pretty solidly on the other end of the spectrum. Brooke, more outspoken than her brother, Trip, falls solidly into the liberal category. Though they may not be personally affected, they seem keenly aware of the war going on thousands of miles away -- a war that, unlike their parents, they are not convinced is the right course of action. To Brooke, reality is more important than appearance. She prefers not to gloss over the facts, even when it may be more convenient to do so... though it is pretty clear that Trip could go either way where that is concerned, just to maintain peace at home, if nothing else.
We learn that Brooke is a writer who has been battling depression and has arrived with her newest book in tow, which is a tell-all memoir that threatens to re-open old wounds and expose long-hidden family secrets. At first reluctant to speak of it with anyone, she does inform her brother of her newest work but doesn’t go into any sort of details. Eventually, she works up the nerve to have a few copies of her manuscript made. After much deliberation about whether to present it to the family and just how to go about it, she does just that, and that’s when the floodgates open -- and, if you ask me, many interesting questions are posed. What is the right -- or “right,” as the case may be -- thing to do? Does a writer have a responsibility toward their family when writing about them and, if so, what is it? Does she just go ahead and publish the book despite her parent’s pleas not to do so before they die? Do they, having already dealt with the anguish of having lost a child -- in their own way, unhealthy as it may seem -- now have a right to dictate the manner in which their daughter copes with the loss of her brother -- or, at the very least, have the right to ask her to defer coping with it? What are the consequences of withholding pertinent information from your own children? Of sheltering them from the truth? Is the withholding of said information made better if you withhold it in some sort of attempt to protect them from a harsh reality, even harder to deal with than the one they already know? What is more important, public perception or the truth?
Other Desert Cities runs at the Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn St. in Chicago) through February 17, 2013. For more information, including showtimes, or to purchase tickets to Other Desert Cities, log onto www.goodmantheatre.org or call the Goodman Theatre box office at 312-443-3800.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren