Other Desert Cities

Helena Ruoti, Susan Cella, John Patrick Hayden and Pilar Witherspoon
Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
Jon Robin Baitz' Tony-nominated and Pulitzer Prize finalist Other Desert Cities is a hot property in regional circles this season. A five-hander with a single set, the family drama-with-zingers-and-a-twist offers more than one juicy role for seasoned actors. The Pittsburgh Public Theater offers up its rendition featuring local favorite Helen Ruoti leading a solid cast comprising the Wyeth family, plus one in-law.

Lyman (James DeMarse) and Polly Wyeth (Ruoti) are wealthy conservatives welcoming the homecoming of daughter Brooke (Pilar Witherspoon) and son Trip (John Patrick Hayden) on Christmas Eve 2004 in Palm Springs. Polly's sister Silda (Susan Cella) is also in residence, post-rehab. The family interactions are not unlike what goes on in many homes, with affectionate ribbing and political jabs between the two generations. But the temperature in the room heats up when Brooke reveals she has written a book about her family, featuring the tragic situation that took place in the early 1970s when her older brother Henry became involved with a protest group responsible for a bombing, which led to Henry's suicide. Brooke looked up to her older brother and his death, and apparently the parents' reluctance to speak about it, is something that has caused Brooke severe problems for some time. Lyman and Polly quickly express their opposition to the public revelation of this family story, but Brooke just as strongly refuses to pull it. Who is overreacting and why?

Baitz writes dialogue with humor and sophistication. It does not seem unreasonable that Polly and Wyeth are opposed to their personal family story being made public. It does seem unreasonable that Brooke can't accept this. But it is all a preparation for what happens in the second act when things become clearer. [If you're confused by the timeline of the 1970s story and the ages of the characters we see, you're not alone. I spent a great deal of time distracted by this at my first viewing in 2011, and during the Public performance, couples on both sides of me were hashing it out during intermission. Technically, the dates and ages work, though a slightly different timing would have made concern unnecessary.]

Ruoti is queen bee here; at the top of her acting game as Polly Wyeth (though playing a bit older than she looks). Polly is clever, funny, a loving and protective mother and wife. As husband Wyeth, James DeMarse is a blustering teddy bear. His rage in a late scene is uneven but authentic. Having seen three Brookes, it seems to be the writing that makes the performances of this character seem whiny and self-indulgent. So, no criticism of Pilar Witherspoon, who does the best she can with an unsympathetic character. Trip is here mostly for support of Brooke, and Hayden is fine in the part and seems capable of larger roles. Sister Silda is more integral to the story, but most of what we see and hear from her are delicious wisecracks; Cella is up to the task.

Michael Schweikardt provides an appropriately Palm Springish set of the modern Wyeth home. We see very good work by the multi-talented director Rob Ruggiero.

Pittsburgh Public Theater's Other Desert Cities through June 30 closes the 2012-2013 season. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.

See the current Schedule of Pittsburgh Theatre.

-- Ann Miner

Privacy Policy