Painful lies and political allegiances consume the dysfunctional Wyeth family of Palm Springs in Jon Robin Baitz’s compelling 2011 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama “Other Desert Cities,” commendably staged by Margarett Perry in its local premiere by the Human Race Theatre Company.
On Christmas Eve 2004, envisioned within beautifully stylish surroundings by set designer Tamara L. Honesty, the Wyeths are far from merry and bright. Republican hotshots Polly and Lyman fiercely clash with their liberal, emotionally scarred daughter Brooke, a novelist who plans to publish her scandalous “Love and Mercy: A Memoir” that startlingly reveals some unsettling truths about her privileged upbringing. More concerned with perception than reality, Polly and Lyman quickly scold and threaten Brooke, calling her characterizations of their friends “grotesque” in the hope she will postpone or completely scrap her plans. “You’d still be my daughter, but the meaning of it would change,” warns Polly in particular before planting a chilling kiss on her cheek that speaks volumes. However, Brooke finds favor and encouragement from her recovering alcoholic aunt Silda, Polly’s liberal sister, as well as her easygoing brother Trip, who has become somewhat of a black sheep due to his frowned upon association with reality television.
Baitz’s battle of wills, sometimes unnecessarily overtly political, is tightly drawn in Act 1 giving the audience a productive pathway into rooting for or against Brooke’s mission. Even so, he masterfully raises the stakes by fashioning a more engrossing Act 2 crafted around a secret that would destroy the family if the public ever knew. Carefully taught “how to control things” by none other than Nancy Reagan, Polly and Lyman ultimately risk everything to explain the cost of thriving, the ability to navigate among certain circles without blemish in order to fuel discretion and protect image.
An exceptionally domineering Kate Young and admirable Scott Stoney compatibly blend as the core couple whose scorn sets the action in motion, far more noticeable as a driving force here than the original Broadway production which tipped the scales in favor of Brooke (Rachel Griffiths, an alumna of Baitz’s terrific ABC family drama “Brothers & Sisters”) and Silda (a phenomenal Judith Light). Young and Stoney memorably partnered under Perry’s direction nine years ago in the Human Race’s splendid local premiere of “The Retreat from Moscow” (Young’s electrifying portrayal of a rejected wife remains among the best I have seen on a local stage) and their welcomed reunion is long overdue. Skillfully attacking her role with incredible nuances and an impressive proficiency of language, Young is a force to behold as Polly spews her opinionated, often politically incorrect views while ruling the roost. Stoney, in a less showy capacity, becomes too stiff when exuding Lyman’s rigidity, but amiably showcases the character’s softer side when revealing his genuine love and concern for Brooke.
Additionally, Jennifer Joplin brings intensity, compassion and wit to the tenacious Brooke in a solid portrayal effortlessly escalating to heartbreaking degrees when her dreams are unexpectedly shattered. As Silda, Sherman Fracher surprisingly stops short of taking her juicy role to sardonic, Edward Albee-esque proportions but provides apt comic relief and an astute understanding of her character’s familial disdain and discontent. Aaron Vega, humorous and impactful, turns Trip into an engaging, entertaining mediator.
“I don’t like weakness,” says Polly during one of her diatribes. “You can die from too much sensitivity in this world.” It’s clear the Wyeths may never recover from their self-inflected wounds. Thankfully, Baitz and the Human Race certainly make their journey rewarding and unforgettable.
“Other Desert Cities” continues through April 13 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Act One: 65 minutes; Act Two: 47 minutes. Tickets are $36-$43 (prices vary depending on performance date and discounts are also available). For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com or www.humanracetheatre.org
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