Thoughts & Musings

The Hurt Locker

What ensues on stage is some of the finest writing, acting and directing you’re likely to see in the Ocean State for a very long time.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 24th March 201524/03/15
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Poet Robert Frost reveals in “Desert Places” he is less afraid of the empty places between the stars than his own desert places. Metaphorically, I think the places Frost is talking about are those dark places in our soul that humans avoid at all costs, not so much because of their emptiness but because of what we might find there. Scary or not, such places are fertile ground for playwrights, especially talented ones like John Robin Baitz.

In “Other Desert Cities,” now playing at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre, Baitz saddles up in the finest Hollywood tradition and takes us on a journey into the new West — Palm Springs, California — a desert town inhabited by stars and starlets, old money and new, steadfast Republicans, idealistic Democrats, palm trees, rattlesnakes aplenty and, of course, a family experiencing some explosive dynamics.

The time is 2004. Vietnam is a distant memory — except to those who were damaged by the conflict either by fighting or protesting the war. Staunch Republicans Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Vince Petronio and Sharon Carpentier) supported the war but lost a child when their teenage son, Henry, was implicated in a veteran’s death at a recruiting office that was bombed by a radical group. For them, the war lives on, but not because they want it to.

Henry’s younger sister, Brooke (Rachel Morris) after a six-year hiatus on the liberal East Coast where she recovered from a bout of depression has returned home with a book in hand about Henry’s premature demise 30 years earlier. Brooke’s description of the events leading up to Henry’s death from an apparent suicide has left no stone unturned, opening old anti-war wounds for the family.

Brooke hopes to get her parent’s blessing for the book which she has already sold to a notable New York publisher; however, Polly and Lyman will have none of it. As far as they’re concerned, Henry is dead and should remain so. They can see no logical reason for dredging up the past.

Rounding out the family gathering are Polly’s sister, Silda (Joanne Fayan) and Trip (Ara Boghigian), Brooke’s younger brother who was only five when Henry was lost. Brooke turns to them for help in convincing Polly and Lyman to give in.

What ensues on stage is some of the finest writing, acting and directing you’re likely to see in the Ocean State for a very long time. The Baitz script is intelligent, humorous and more than a little challenging. Baitz makes you think not only about his characters, but about yourself, about your own views and values.

Director Ed Shea has his cast of 2nd Story regulars as finely tuned as a Stradivarius violin; they never miss a beat, never drift off key. In addition to dancing through scene after scene of caustic discourse, each actor has at least one impassioned monologue delivered as if the words were coming from their soul. These performances are something extraordinary. Carpentier, Morris, Petronio, Boghigian and Fayan make the audience feel as though they are part of the Wyeth clan, part of this family in turmoil, make you feel their pain, their joy, their sorrows and a whole lot more.

War is hell. That’s the case whether it’s fought in the sweaty jungles of Vietnam or in the relative comfort of a living room in Palm Springs 30 years after the shooting has stopped.

“Other Desert Cities” portrays the shock and awe, the anguish and despair, the exhilaration and camaraderie of a family on the eve of its destruction. The play is a trip into one of those desert places where unresolved family secrets reside. What is lost and what is found in that dark place is pure theatrical magic.

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