Other Desert Cities Los Angeles Review - A Family in Transition

Playwright Jon Robin Baltz’s OTHER DESERT CITIES asks a challenging but also problematic question: "Do we really ever know anyone else?" Then Baltz raises the stakes by adding, “in our own family?" For this is the conundrum of the Wyeths – Lyman (Mark Bramhall), a famous actor turned Republican power broker - and Polly (Ellen Geer), a staunch conservative and the wifely power behind the throne. Both confidantes of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and every A-Lister in the Republican Party since then.

Mark Bramhall and Willow Geer - Photo by Miriam Geer

The time is 2004, and the retired couple live in comfort in Palm Springs. It’s Christmas Eve, and their son and daughter have come home to join a family celebration. A joyous time, right? The reality turns out to be a little different. Son Trip (Rafael Goldstein) is a successful television producer for a court TV show, but seems somewhat underimpressed by his accomplishments and distant from his family. Daughter Barbara (Willow Geer) is a well-known “one-book” author who has just completed her second book after a six-year hiatus to recover from a nervous breakdown. She’s also a card-carrying liberal who despises everything her parents stand for. She is ably encouraged by her aunt Silda (Melora Marshall), a Kennedy-era liberal hippie, who has been feeding novelist Barbara all the family secrets – as seen by Silda. Silda is just out of rehab – for the umpteenth time – and living “temporarily” with the Wyeths.

Willow Geer and Mark Bramhall - Photo by Miriam Geer

And what is the biggest family secret of all? The untimely suicide of the third and oldest Wyeth offspring, a radicalized brother who was involved in a fatal bombing in the 60’s. A brother beloved by Barbara, a teen at the time, who harbors unresolved anger and pain over his loss. By now, you’ve guessed the topic of her newest and soon-to-be-published memoir. She’s come home for the holidays to show her parents copies of the book – and to tell them that it will be published within six weeks. And, by the way, to let them know that they drove their son to suicide.

Ellen Geer - Photo by Miriam Geer

It is on this foundation that author Baltz studies the complex dynamics of a family pulled together and driven apart by an unspeakable trauma. When asked about the disparate characters in the play, Baltz remarked:

“They’re all me; it’s me looking at different parts of myself: The complacent snob, the fiercely protective person, the wrecked hipster, the overly earnest person who believes in art and in her own absurd importance.”

And so it goes within this family torn by half-truths, lies, conflicting political ideologies, old hurts that have never seen the light of day, skewed convictions, and - for each - a firm personal belief in his own infallibility. OTHER DESERT CITIES is truly a study in shades of gray.

Rafael Goldstein and Melora Marshall - Photo by Miriam Geer

As you’ve already probably noticed, this family drama is also a drama enacted by the Geer family (Will’s daughters Ellen and Melora and granddaughter Willow). Each principal manages to make a distinct and indelible impression – a clear tribute to their acting skills. Director Mary Jo DuPrey helms the production with a compassionate hand, allowing each character the space to shine. And what can I say about the venue? The production team has, as always, managed to convert a mountainside into a home. The title? As you motor along Route 10, you will see a sign for Palm Spring – and also for “Other Desert Cities.” Some have suggested that there might also be hints of other desert cities – those where war and mayhem are erupting on other continents.

Willow Geer and Melora Marshall - Photo by Miriam Geer

OTHER DESERT CITIES runs through September 30, with Saturday performances at 3:30 p.m. (7/29/17, 8/5/17, 9/9/17) and 7:30 p.m. (7/8/17, 8/26/17, 9/16/17, 9/30/17) and Sunday performances at 7:30 p.m. (8/13/17, 8/20/17, 9/3/17, 9/24/17). Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. Tickets range from $15 to $38.50. For information and reservations, call 310-455-3723 or go online.  

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