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reviewed by Ken Klingenmeier

Carmel Community Players’ 2017-18 season continues with Jon Robin Baitz’ complex drama, Other Desert Cities. I wrote an apt accounting of the plot in my 2014 review of the play at another theatre, and will borrow from it here:

“A struggling NYC writer returns after 6 years to the lavish Palm Springs home of her well-to-do right wing parents for the family’s Christmas celebration. Joined there by her brother and her mother’s sister – the daughter has a real surprise to share; having spent those 6 years struggling to rediscover her voice after her first novel, she has finally finished a book that is soon to be published – a (revealing) memoir about the family.

“Such is the bare bones synopsis of (the script). A more fully endowed storyline includes such factors as a third child, an older brother lost to suicide, it seems, many years ago; the daughter’s perception of her parent’s culpability in that loss; the aunt’s alignment with the daughter along with her ongoing alcohol and drug recovery; the father’s retirement from film acting for a hard-line right wing political career; the (younger) brother’s production of a low-class reality television program; and the mother’s brash, fault-finding, and controlling nature whereby she is equipped and ready to go toe to toe with anyone, and often does. Oh, and the parents have been holding onto a very deep, dark secret.

“With the possibly family-destroying book as it’s centerpiece, Baitz has constructed a fully engaging plotline that wades through a longish first act, only to deliver in the second act with a knockout punch of a resolution. The long exposition is very necessary for this complicated, yet engaging, American family drama. We learn so much about these folks, layers and layers of essential facts, and are led into the conflict of the dangerously truthful book through Baitz’ fully crafted portraits of the privileged Wyeth family members.”

Desert cast

From left: Jeremy Tuterow, Ronn Johnstone. Miki Mathioudakis, Vickie Cornelius Phipps and Shannon Samson – the cast of CCP’s “Other Desert Cities”.

As I say, this is a complex entertainment, and as an audience member one has to commit thoroughly to collecting the array of facts and ideas that the playwright has sown together. It’s also a complex task for the actors and, I dare say, for the director as well. Five strong characterizations are a necessary ingredient for the crafting of the production, and director Jim LaMonte has selected a capable group to tell the story.

CCP newcomer Shannon Samson takes the role of daughter/author Brooke Wyatt. Willing to stand her ground in the face of her parents’ negativity, Brooke comes off as alternately strong and overwhelmed in Ms. Samson’s emotional portrayal. As Brooke’s mother Polly, Vickie Cornelius Phipps adroitly fashions a woman with an iron crust, who nonetheless suffers the heavy burden of her family’s circumstances. Ronn Johnstone, as the father Lyman, manages the mounting frustration his character faces with a skillful portrayal. Miki Mathioudakis is perfect as the recovering alcoholic sister/aunt Silda Grauman,  providing a few lighter moments to the proceedings. And Jeremy Tuterow rounds out the excellent cast with a quality turn as Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, who seems (and feels) out of place in his own family.

Although I could take issue with the breathlessly rapid pacing at the onset of the play, I see it may be a tactic to rouse the audience members to “play attention!” and that was certainly the affect it had – on me, at least. I also suspect the cast, after the long week of technical and dress rehearsals, had lost some of their edge by the Sunday matinee performance I saw. As the show runs two more weekends, I know they will be refreshed and have a bit more spark than I witnessed. Those things aside – it was a very good offering of a very difficult play. The storytelling was fully engaged and director LaMonte has used his impressive bag of production tricks to fine avail.

Carmel Community Player’s Other Desert Cities continues at their Clay Terrace venue through February 11. To learn information about times and dates, visit their website: http://www.carmelplayers.org or call 317.815.9387.

  • – Title banner by Lori Raffel
  • – Photo by Charlie Hanover
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