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EMAV Review: An Emotionally Dizzying 'Desert Cities' at A Public Fit

★★★★½ - Delicious

A Public Fit’s meticulous, polished production of Jon Robin Baitz‘s Other Desert Cities affords the adventurous theatregoer a highly satisfying, nay “shattering” emotional journey.

To say that everything is not as it seems in this cautionary tale is a cataclysmic understatement. We think we know the Wyeth family, at the heart of this conflict. The situation seems all too familiar; the heroes and villains all too well defined. The subtext of political trajectories seems transparent. Some of us might smugly get on one premature soapbox or another, presuming we know the outcome of the journey.

And then the rug (or rather the desert) gets pulled out from under our feet. Can it be we have been playing in the wrong sandbox? The maxim “judge not and be not judged” comes to mind. The situation:

Brooke Wyeth has returned home to Palm Springs, the only destination on the I-10 that is worthy of appellation on the highway sign directing us to “Palm Springs and other desert cities.” As the Wyeth family’s only daughter, Brooke is on a mission. She wants to inform her parents of her intent to publish a take-no-prisoners expose of a family tragedy, and defiantly seeks their blessing. It needs no spoiler alert to tell you her deceased brother was involved in an act of domestic terrorism.

The truths, half truths, untruths, and negative fantasies about the incident and her brother’s suicide loom over the unfolding “dramedy” like a GOP elephant in the room. I wish I hadn’t known the final twist of fate that ties up the story. With a thrice familiar show like APF’s own recent encounter with William’s The Glass Menagerie, we come to it wondering what a new interpretation might bring. With a show like Other Desert Cities, we come for a different kind of fresh discovery. I am happy to say that even though I knew the startling denouement, APF’s compelling production managed to convey a spontaneity that totally swept me along with it.

Author Baitz has crafted a wonderfully complex quintet of characters who spar with each other with crackling abandon. The talented cast revels in their assignments.

As the enigmatic daughter Brooke Wyeth, Rozanne Sher was maddeningly, believably volatile. Ms. Sher seems willful and combative one moment, vulnerable and insecure the next. Her unwavering challenge to publish an unflattering portrait of her family drives the piece, and Rozanne remains steadfast in her quest, even as she lays bare her familial wounds (real or imagined) and determined retribution.

Charlene Sher portrays the calculating, unyielding mother (Polly Wyeth) as a Neiman Marcus lady hanging on to her deceptions with fingertips of steel. At first, her clearly upper crust accent was for me a Distractor Factor. Much is made of her being a Texas girl. I ultimately accepted that her British manner of elocution was an affectation that morphed into reality for this self-possessed matriarch. Ms. Sher’s transition from chilly confrontation to confessional engagement was alone worth the price of admission.

As her assured, socially and politically prominent husband Lyman Wyeth, Brad Hoover was all repressed emotions and PC posturing until the veneer cracks and he descends into a long suppressed soul-baring. We all know someone like this man, inscrutable and “reliable,” but with an oddly troubling subtext that belies preconceptions. Mr. Hoover excels as this once prized member of all the “right clubs” that have fecklessly turned on him.

As Polly’s wastrel sister Silda Grauman, Marlena Shapiro offers an enormously appealing, accessible counterbalance to her uptight conservative sister and her consort. Unlike Polly, Silda is a free spirit, not caring what others think of her, but also perfectly willing to “allow” her better off sibling and spouse to provide her free shelter and support. I greatly enjoy Ms. Shapiro in all she does, but I wondered if she was just a bit too much “together” for a woman who (the script tells us) has been ravaged by excesses? Perhaps a bit more patina, an emotional wear and tear would add yet another layer to her accomplished portrayal.

Nick Huff, as the brother Trip Wyeth, emerges as the tale’s most sympathetic entity, not only for his Matthew Perry-like affability and capacity for self-deprecation, but also for a spot-on delivery of his charming and caring dialogue. Mr. Huff has been given the script’s most endearing, inclusive character and he capitalizes on every opportunity.

The physical production is up to APF’s high standard. Eric A. Koger has designed a clean, spare set that perfectly communicates a typical, somewhat sterile Palm Springs environment. Elizabeth Kline’s effective lighting design suggested not only the changing times of day, but also the emotional shifts in the plot. Ms. Kline surmounts the challenges of The Usual Space, even if she has to allow for unintentional shadows from the window frame on “the sky.”

Mariya Radeva-Nedyalkova’s excellent costume design aptly defines the characters all the while seeming unforced and natural. John McClain’s subtle sound design was no less remarkable for its simplicity.

Director Mark Gorman allows the evening to unfold with honesty and an unforced focus. He has elicited performances from his actors that are organic and believable. Mr. Gorman allows the machinations of the plot to evolve naturally, laced with the dialogue’s inherent intrigue and duplicity. If there is an infrequent unmotivated cross or contrived stage picture, this was overall a potent, searing interpretation that inspired self-examination and questioning.

A minor quibble: the Epilogue takes too long to start. The audience members around me were unsure if the show was over until there was an awkward reboot of the action. The costume change is not necessary. I would urge the character to move directly into the short but important “button” that is the final scene.

If you care about contemporary theatre, if you want to be engaged and moved by a theatrical presentation, if you want to celebrate the fine estate of current Valley theatre companies, take a hard turn off the highway to visit A Public Fit’s engaging Other Desert Cities.

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