Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Other Desert Cities and Lady Windermere's Fan

Also see Wally's review of Grounded

A Smart and Entertaining Production of Jon Robin Baitz' Other Desert Cities

Kandis Chappell and James Sutorius
Photo by Mark Kitaoka
TheatreWorks' Other Desert Cities is a passionately alive play inhabited by a flawless cast of fascinating characters, a subtle balance of stinging comedy and bitter conflicting drama. This production works due to the sharp direction of Richard Seer and the strength of the impeccable actors delivering the clever and emotional lines of Jon Robin Baitz.

The occasion is a 2004 Christmas family gathering at the Palm Springs home of Polly (Kandis Chappell) and Lyman (James Sutorius) Wyeth rendered in a marvelous, perfectly expensive, easy-living desert style by designer Alexander Dodge.

Lyman is a former B action film actor and was appointed GOP chairman by President Ronald Reagan while Polly transformed herself from a Texas Jew into a scornfully straightforward goy. Both are still active on the Republican fundraising circuit.

Polly has a cheeky liberal sister named Silda (Julia Brothers) who is the direct opposite of her sibling. Whereas Polly is the picture of Nancy Reagan, with not a hair ever out of place, Silda is somewhat slovenly with her hair going every which way. These sisters were once famous in Hollywood as the co-writers of a popular series of 1960s MGM comedies about a Gidget-like character. Silda is fresh out of rehab and broke, so she has to put up with Polly's cutting superiority.

Visiting for the holidays is Polly and Lyman's son Trip (Rod Brogan), who produces a hit fake-courtroom reality show like "Judge Judy." He appears to be one unhappy fellow, even with the success of the series. Also in attendance is daughter Brooke (Kate Turnbull). The parents hackle at cheerless Brooke's "abhorrent and repugnant lefty politics." However, they welcome her, since she had a recent breakdown and has not fully recovered.

The family is floored when they learn that Brooke has written a book that involves her late brother Henry, a subject normally avoided by the family. It seems Henry was involved with an underground radical group who was responsible for a bombing in 1970. He eventually leapt from a ferry in Seattle into oblivion. The story is about to be excerpted in a magazine before the book is published. Needless to say, Polly and Lyman are not very happy about the unwanted publicity.

The TheatreWorks cast is superb and, under Richard Seer's strong hand, the actors never strike a wrong note. Their confrontations, speech rhythms and body language with one another are perfect.

Kate Turnbull gives a brilliant performance as Brooke. She mines the character's depths of despair with understanding and awareness and works up to a volcanic passion at the end of the play. Kandis Chappell (reprising the role she played at the Old Globe) is outstanding as the tough and emotional Polly. She plays the character with a masterful sense of the imperious, and delivers the play's drollest lines with self-confidence.

James Sutorius gives an excellent portrayal of Lyman, dominating the stage with his booming voice and penurious charm. Julia Brothers is marvelous as Polly's recovering alcoholic sister Silda. She delivers her comic lines like a dagger and successfully maneuvers the shoals of a funny drunk, nearly doleful loser and concerned family member with ease. In fine support, Rod Brogan fits the laidback Tripp to a "t." He plays the character as an oddball person with a what-the-hell wit.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge has transformed the set into the California desert enclave with white carpets, a sunken living room, and even an outcropping of canyon rocks in the background. You can see that the family is wealthy and feel the self-imposed isolation of the group.

The production also boasts Steven B. Mannshardt's excellent desert-umber lighting, Paul Peterson's commodious sound, and Charlotte Devaux' chic costumes.

Other Desert Cities plays through September 15th at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California. For tickets call 650-463-1960 or visit Coming up next is Kenneth Lin's Warrior Class opening on October 9th and running through November 3rd.

A Witty Production of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan

Stacy Ross, Aldo Billingslea and Emily Kitchens
Photo by Kevin Berne
California Shakespeare Company's second play of the summer season is Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, playing at the Bruns Amphitheatre through September 8th. This was the playwright's first commercially successful play.

Oregon Shakespeare director Christopher Liam Moore has staged the play as an old-fashioned melodrama with a profusion of Wildean bons mots and casual witticisms. Kudos to dialect coach Lynne Soffer who got some nice upper class British accents out of the American cast.

At the heart, this is a story about motherhood and the supposed contrast between good and motherly women, like the lovely young Lady Windermere, and "bad" women, like the scandalous Mrs. Erlynne, who has recently arrived in London and seems to be making heavy demands on both Lord Windermere's attention and his checkbook.

Yet Mrs. Erlynne is not what she seems and, as young Lady Windermere learns that virtue and vice are much less absolute qualities than she thought, Wilde offers some strikingly radical views on what a good mother might look like, and how much obedience women really owe to a social system.

For all of this, it's the acting of Stacy Ross as Mrs. Erlynne, Emily Kitchens as Lady Windermere, and Aldo Billingslea as Lord Windermere that drives the evening, especially in the dramatic second act. Stacy Ross is more conclusive as a passionate redeemer than as a femme fatale, but the former element may well be the most important. Aldo Billingslea gives genuine dignity and seriousness to a character that could be a starchy bore. His confrontations with Mrs. Erlynne are taut with trepidation. Emily Kitchens radiates a strong moral person as Lady Windermere yet she displays timorous uneasiness when obliquely hit on by the enamored Lord Darlington.

Nick Gabriel is excellent as Darlington, slickly propelling the first half of the evening forward with his pristine enunciation of text, crisp timing and debonair body language. The incomparable Danny Scheie plays the Duchess of Berwick, a role traditionally played as a dragon. He presents her instead as a viper, a censorious gossip with the blandest but deadliest of bite. There is a chorus of world-weary men headed by Dan Clegg, who gives an impressive performance as the droll Cecil, and James Carpenter giving a gem of a performance as Lord Augustus. L. Peter Callender once again makes the most of a small part, that of Mr. Dumby, using flawless diction to enunciate Wilde's wonderful lines. These groups of men who gather in the second act at the Darlington digs give out an anthology of free floating quotes by Oscar Wilde. Rounding out the cast are Tyee Tilghman as Hopper, Bruce Carlton as Parker, and Rami Margron in several roles; all give good account of their characters.

Meg Neville's flowing, tight-waisted gowns are gorgeous. Particularly stunning is the black and white costume she designed for Mrs. Erlynne highlighting the contradictions of the character. The set by Annie Smart is spacious on the large stage, with the crystal chandeliers and stark white walls of a drawing room.

Lady Windermere's Fan through September 8 at California Shakespeare Theatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda, California. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit Coming up next is Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale opening on September 25th and running through October 20th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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