Arena Stage concludes this season’s plays with Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities. This play explores the intersection of the private and public lives of a family from about 1970 to 2005. Our conversation and contemplation began before the show began, as we viewed the Fitchlander Theatre’s set (Kate Edmunds), which gave us those creamy white carpets and swivel chairs, and sunken conversation fire-pit ring. “When did you last see one of those?”
I recalled a ski trip at Lake Tahoe in my teens. The cabin had the sunken half ring around the burnt orange, cone fireplace. Linda recalled a modern home built in their New England beach community, with the sunken conversation circle around the fire pit. The question we then asked was whether this set represented a home from the 1970’s? Or, a home that never changed since the 1970’s? We would learn that “Yes” would be the answer to both questions.
Other Desert Stories, presents aging parents, Lyman (Larry Bryggman) and Polly Wyeth (Helen Carey), who have bought their daughter, Brooke (Emily Donahoe), and son, Ttrip (Scott Drummond) to their Palm Springs home for Christmas. Polly’s sister, Silda Grauman (Martha Hackett) also lives in the house, since she had complete alcohol rehab, until she could arrange a different situation.
The tension begins in the opening scene when they come in from playing tennis doubles. Lyman and Polly try to entice Trip and Brooke to follow their example and philosophy in life with the rewards of a vibrant retirement. Trip has picked up their entertainment careers, Polly haven written screen plays and Lyman acted in westerns and detective shows, by producing a TV judge-trial show. He does not take his work or audience seriously, but sees this as a way to earn a living in Hollywood. Brooke has settle in eastern Long Island, writing for periodicals, while working on literary novels. She has stumbled with depression and writer’s block for several years.
Lyman and Polly live on their entertainment, social, and political memories of the Reagan years. Trip lives in the glib, superficial world of reality TV. Brooke announces that the book she had drafted is a memoir about the private life of their family. Later, we will learn the Aunt Silda knew of, reviewed, and provided information for the memoir. Family conflict is inevitable around the family secrets. Of course, the known-secrets are not the true secrets, which will come out over time, forcing each character to retreat from his or her position to construct a new private reality.
Baitz’s dialogue intoxicates us with crisp, dry, sarcastic humor in the opening scenes. Kyle Donnelly’s directing uses exacting timing of these lines to build the tension as we teeter between too much alcohol from the bar on one side of the stage and too much caffene from the coffee pot opposite. The visual images, created by the sunken conversation fire pit set, the costumes and hair styles, give the actors a style which enhances their interactions.
One of the questions that we debated after the play was how these visual images framed the play. While set in 2005, with actors portraying 40 to 70 year old people, their home, dress, and hair styles seems to have not changed much from the 1970’s. Was the home ossified in this era? Had the daughter not grown up from her adolescent years? Were the parents continuing to live their best years when they were behind the camera, in movies and politics.
All of these details revolve around the family member who never enters the play, the older brother. We learn from various comments that he fell into rebellion, drugs, and disreputable company in his teens. He became involved in Vietnam war protests that turned violent. He drowned, possibly in suicide. Since that time the parents became fervent conservatives, railing against drugs, sex, and rock and roll lifestyles. The slogans of the Reagan years gave them a voice and faith to carry on after the loss of their son. Brook states that she lost her best friend when her brother died. Her grief is deep, and she attempts to work through her loss in her writing and liberal viewpoints. Aunt Silda lost her humor in her grief and alcoholic remedy. She had been acting out her conflict with her sister, Polly, by encouraging the son to pursue an alternative lifestyle, and providing Brook with information on the family secrets.
Many modern dramas resolve the play with the fragmentation of the social group. Tension builds, accusations are made, secrets reveals, and the parties return to their desperate corners, like boxes recovering between rounds in a match that can never end. Baitz scripts the Wyeth family differently. After the climatic scene in which the parent reveal details about their son’s drowning, Brooke, Trip, and Aunt Silda do not retreat.
The lights dim. Lyman, Polly, and Silda leave the stage. Brooke dons a black jacket and glasses, and Trip a flannel shirt, standing at opposite sides of the stage. A spot light draws our attention to Brooke, who is completing a book reading event, probably ten years after the prior scenes. She reads from her revised memoirs, having withdrawn her prior draft. Her presentation of her family has a different tone. She talks about caring for each parent as they aged, then died.
Learning the secret behind the family secret changed her perspective of her parents. The public venire of their social status and political rhetoric were both a simplification of their fears and a means of protecting their family from scrutiny. But, Brooke and Trip realized that their parents’ private values regarding family over ruled the public platform. Their humanity was restored. Through this awareness and through caring for their parents, Brooke and Trip matured. They could step out from the enclosing circle of the sunken conversation fire-pit, without breaking the circle of unity of the private family.