All of us find ways to cope with tragedy. Some talk about it while others, like the Wyeths in “Other Desert Cities,” bury their secrets and build a protective shell around their lives.
Those walls come tumbling down in Jon Robin Baitz’s Tony Award-nominated play, which Greg Leaming has staged in a gripping and deeply involving production for Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Polly and Lyman Wyeth of Palm Springs are old guard Republicans of the Reagan era, living a comfortable life of tennis games, afternoon drinks and country club dinners. But things change during a Christmas visit from their novelist daughter, Brooke, whose unwelcome gift is a new family memoir she has written about the apparent suicide of her older brother, Henry, after he was implicated in the Vietnam-era bombing of a recruitment center.
Brooke battles depression and worries that she’ll follow in her brother’s footsteps. But she has spent six years writing her story and is prepared to battle her fiercely opinionated mother and a father who hopes to keep the peace.
It’s a fascinating story, even after repeat viewings, that unravels in increasingly revealing scenes that keep changing your perspective of what happened years ago. We also hear from Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, a TV producer who barely remembers Henry, and their radically liberal Aunt Silda, a recovering alcoholic who depends on Polly for care.
It’s a potent mix, and Leaming’s cast creates some magic on the Asolo Rep stage, especially if you can overlook the fact that the impressive FSU/Asolo Conservatory students Lucy Lavely as Brooke and Benjamin Williamson as Trip look at least a decade too young for their roles.
Their performances make it easy to ignore.
Lavely delivers a nicely nuanced and emotionally raw performance as Brooke prepares for the worst and is shocked by each new revelation.
Lauren Klein, who understudied Stockard Channing as Polly on Broadway, makes the role her own creation here. Her Polly is sharp-tongued and brittle, but surprisingly loving in a tough-love way.
J. Kenneth Campbell as Lyman, a one-time actor who shifted to politics, is the modest negotiator, at least until the situation gets past him, sending him off his intellectual and emotional guard.
Williamson captures Trip’s sarcastic nature as he tries to provide balance and comfort to all sides. As Silda, Carolyn Michel provides the sparks needed to occasionally rekindle the fights as they ebb until all the truths are laid bare. She is weathered and beaten down, but ready to rise once more.
The play is staged on a gorgeous Palm Springs living room set by Judy Gailen that looks like it may have been featured in Architectural Digest, with a beautiful mountain view. Anthony Pearson’s lighting provides subtle support to the emotional shifts and Devon Painter has costumed the cast in ways that exemplify their lives.
“Other Desert Cities” can be tough, but Baitz wisely balances the drama with some biting humor, making for an engaging visit with the Wyeths.
OTHER DESERT CITIES
By Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Greg Leaming. Reviewed Jan. 16, Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. In repertory through Feb. 27. For more information: 351-8000; asolorep.org