2nd Story – Other Desert Cities
It’s impossible not to be moved by the characters, circumstances and the cast of this production.By Kathie Raleigh
“Other Desert Cities” is the inscrutable title for a play that debuted in 2011 and now is making its Rhode Island premiere at 2nd Story Theatre. The desert reference is apt, because this play is hot.
Whiplash-smart dialogue, characters we can relate to, and a flawless cast all are engaging. Set in 2004, the play has funny exchanges mixed in with serious issues, and you empathize with more than one character.
The title references a road sign in Southern California directing drivers to Palm Springs or “other desert cities.” The former is the direction writer Brooke Wyeth took to get to her parents’ home to celebrate Christmas with them, her brother and her aunt, although she toyed with the impulse to head in the “other” direction.
That’s because Brooke, who moved to the East Coast and hasn’t been home for six years, knows the visit inevitably ends up in a clash of politics between her liberal views and her parents’ old-guard GOP conservatism; they count Ronald and Nancy Reagan among their friends.
More disruptive, however, is the impending publication of Brooke’s new book, a tell-all memoir of the family’s dysfunction after a tragic event in the past. Brooke’s parents, Lyman and Polly, have shut the door on the incident and don’t want it re-opened. Polly’s sister, Silda, however, has been encouraging – more like aiding and abetting – her niece to tell the story, no matter the consequences.
Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, is determined to be neutral, at least at first. “We all live with each other’s divergent views,” he says. But clearly, this family’s views are not just divergent but divisive.
Piece by piece, the story unfolds, along with details about how each person coped. From the audience’s perspective, loyalties shift as information is revealed, and what seems dysfunctional begins to be understandable. The situation here is dramatic, but the family dynamics are plausible.
Ed Shea, 2nd Story’s artistic director and director of this production, has re-arranged the furniture in the UpStage theater, returning to the theater-in-the-round of seasons past. The format, along with a minimal set that still suggests affluence plus some sharp lighting, serve to focus our attention exactly where it belongs, on the exceptional cast.
Sharon Carpentier, whose performances I’ve always appreciated for their warmth, has a totally different demeanor as Polly. Her face is set, her lips curl, and when someone calls her a bully, it’s not surprising. But there is more to Polly, and that’s where Carpentier’s inherent warmth pays off.
Vince Petronio is achingly authentic as Lyman, a man whose loyalties are divided between his wife and his daughter. As Trip, Ara Boghigian has a scene-stealing stage presence while remaining relaxed and natural with his knowing observations. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz also wrote for “The West Wing,” and that television show’s quick-quip dialogue echoes through this play.
Two more outstanding female performances complete the picture: Rachel Morris as Brooke, the writer, and Joanne Fayan as Silda, the acerbically funny recovering alcoholic. Morris evokes both empathy and irritation; Fayan is a realistic mix of self-righteousness and rationalization.
The ending, an epilogue really, might be a little too pat, but that’s just a moment out of an engrossing hour and 45 minutes. It’s impossible not to be moved by the characters, circumstances and the cast of this production.