Also see John's review of Side Show
Other Desert Cities is set in the home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth in Palm Springs, California, beginning with the Christmas holiday of 2004. The title refers to a sign on eastbound Interstate 10 in California, which indicates that the freeway is headed toward Indio, California and "other Desert Cities" (the rest of the Coachella Valley). Lyman (J. Kenneth Campbell) is a retired politician and former movie actor. The matriarch of the family, his wife Polly (Barbara Bradshaw), wrote a series of MGM comedies in the 1960s with her sister Silda (Lourelene Snedeker). The politically conservative couple has enjoyed long lasting personal relationships with members of Ronald Reagan's inner circle.
This holiday the Wyeth's are hosting Polly's liberal sister Silda, an alcoholic fresh out of rehab, as well as their son Trip (Antonio Amadeo) and daughter Brooke (Erin Joy Schmidt). Trip, who writes a seemingly flimsy reality TV show, is somewhat of a slacker stuck in party mode. This occasion marks their emotionally fragile daughter Brooke's first visit in six years. A once promising novelist, she has returned home to announce that she is about to publish a memoir revealing an explosive chapter in the family's history that focuses on her deceased older brother Henry, who had been involved with a radical underground political group.
The set provided by scenic designer Tim Bennett is a sleek, modern Palm Springs living room, with white leather couches and enticing, expansive views through background windows. Among the contents of a large wall unit are scattered photos of Polly and Lyman with various political figures such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The walls are home to old Hollywood movie posters featuring Lyman at the height of his film career, and remembrances of the series penned by Polly and Silda years ago.
Barbara Bradshaw is masterful as Polly. She commands attention with her focus on the unwavering strength of the character, yet manages to stop just sort of being domineering or shrewish. As it is, the character is not that likeable, but there are reasons. Pushing the envelopeall too easy an acting choicewould have made Polly a villain not worthy of our empathy. Bradshaw's pacing is spot on, and she really drives this production forward. Her Polly holds so tightly to a secret revealed late in the show that it truly is the unexpected surprise it is meant to be.
J. Kenneth Campbell as Lyman is every inch the dashing, aging leading man turned politician. He has an easy, masculine presence free from pretension. Cheers to the costumer, Ellis Tillman, for Lyman's outfits in particular, as they perfectly complement and define his character. There may not be much romantic chemistry between Campbell and Bradshaw, but his character doesn't really seem the romantic type. He seems to really get that, while he is not shallow, he continually chooses the path of least conflict. He is regrettably the type of man who'd rather stick his head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay until it really does blow over. Campbell is at his best in the moments when Lyman actually fights to be allowed to continue to not talk about issues for the sake of a perceived sense of calm.
Erin Joy Schmidt (Brooke) has the unenviable job of portraying the character who embarks on the biggest roller-coaster ride of emotions. She manages to get through it without making Brooke manic or overly fragile. More importantly, regardless of how upset Brooke may be, the whole performance seems organic. The key is that Brooke is trying to regain control of her life. She must take back control born of her parents' well meaning concern, but more importantly she must take it back from her own inability to move past the events from which she has never been able to heal. Schmidt gets the layers of Brooke's conflict and the fact that she may have to hurt other people in her own bid for emotional and mental health.
Antonio Amadeo is likeable as Trip. He infuses the character with a quirky youthfulness through his unfocused restless physical energy. He raises up on the balls of his feet while bending forward at the waist as he makes his points, and slaps his hands on his thighs as punctuation in a way that seems to highlight the lack of polish Trip ascribes to, which is the complete opposite of his fatherif not his whole family. The only thing that doesn't work is Amadeo's attempts to be playful with Schmidt (Brooke) in the manner of people who have known each other for a long time. It only happens a couple of times, but it feels awkward. Lourelene Snedeker is interesting as Silda, though one wishes she had more moments on stage. She and Bradshaw feel like they actually could be sisters.
This production is wonderful, not because of production value or PR hype, but simply because it is well written, intelligently directed, and sensitively acted.
Playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz's other works include the plays The Film Society, The End of the Day, Three Hotel, A Fair Country, Mizlansky/Zilinsky (or Schmucks), Ten Unknowns, and The Paris Letter. Baitz's screenplays include the 1996 adaptation of his own play Substance of Fire and the 2003 People I Know. His work writing for such television series as "The West Wing" and "Alias" led to his position as creator and executive producer of the acclaimed ABC TV drama "Brothers & Sisters."
Other Desert Citieswill be appearing through February 10, 2013, at the Actors' Playhouse, at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse is the nonprofit resident theatre company and managing agent of the historic Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse, which has brought home 66 regional Carbonell Awards for artistic excellence, is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and one of 22 major cultural institutions in Miami-Dade County. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse offers a year-round season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program, as well as educational arts outreach programs for underserved youth, and has initiated a "Young Talent Big Dreams" contest for children in partnership with The Children's Trust. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Performances are usually Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 PM, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at 305-444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.
*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.