“Other Desert Cities” is the riveting family drama currently playing at Arena Stage. The show takes place around the 2004 Christmas holiday in Palm Springs, California. Brooke, has returned to visit her family for the first time in years and to share with them the manuscript of her upcoming book. The book was her telling of a long-held family secret from her perspective, a story that was never talked about amongst the family. Her parents, Lymen and Polly, are Republican Hollywood stars from back in the day that were part of the Reagan’s inner circle and are doing everything they can to prevent Brooke from trudging up this family story and making it public once again. The cast is rounded out by Brooke’s younger brother Trip, who works in Hollywood producing some schlocky reality tv series, and Silda, Polly’s sister who is a recovering alcoholic. The main crux of the show is playing out the dynamics of the family relationships and the motivations of the various characters and the truth behind that family secret. What is Brooke’s motivation for deciding to re-tell this long dormant family secret? Why are her parents so insistent on keeping the secret quiet so many years later? There are so many more questions that revolve around the central plot point in this exceptional script, but to even reference them would perhaps hint at what is to come. And part of the enjoyment of the show is the revelation of the full story and the characters motivations.
The other part of the enjoyment of the show was the performances by the cast, which was superb from top to bottom with special stand out performances by Helen Carey as Polly and Larry Bryggman as Lymen. Polly was everything you would expect from the domineering mother who was caught in a battle of wills with an equally bullheaded daughter. Lymen masterfully played the retired Hollywood actor who was looking for the peaceful holiday visit and wanted to placate everyone. Emily Donahoe played the depressive daughter Brooke who found light in writing the story of the family secret while seeking answers for questions she always had regarding her family and yet seemed more interested in herself than the effect the revelation of the story would have on those in her family. Scott Drummond, played Trip who was the conscious of the show and the character that seemed to stand in the place for the audience with his funny and yet measured responses to both his sister and his parents. His willingness to be completely upfront with his sister about the positives and negatives about her book generally hit the right tone with only becoming a bit heavy handed at the tail-end of the play. Lastly, was Martha Hackett, as Silda the recovering alcoholic sister of Polly who was more resentful to her sister than appreciative of the assistance she was given during her recovery. The actors interaction with each other, beyond the central plot points made for a truly entertaining performance.
If I was going to be a bit nitpicky about the production and the script I would point to what is essentially an epilogue that takes place approximately 6 years later. In some respects it resolves some of the ambiguity left at the close of that Christmas holiday, but opened other areas of ambiguity regarding the content of Brooke’s book. I don’t mind ambiguity at the end of a show, it raises interesting conversations after the fact. But this epilogue left the people I saw the show with, including myself, with basically the same question I had at the end of the second act. What was in Brooke’s book? It seemed rather unnecessary other than resolving a recurring plot point in the show about the publication date of the book. Lastly, while the show generally handled the production in the round very effectively, with an excellent set design, everyone I saw the show with agreed that the character Brooke seemed to have her back to us more often than other characters. Obviously when something is produced in the round that is going to happen and I can’t say avoid specific seating, because those sitting in other spots in the theatre could have had similar responses regarding other characters. In any event, it wasn’t truly problematic either, just something we all indpendently noted while sitting on the North Side. This should not scare anyone away from this superb show.