BCP to present ‘Other Desert Cities,’ Oct. 22 through Nov. 6
When Brooke Wyeth returns to her parents’ home in Palm Springs, California for Christmas, after six years as a writer in New York, she brings a gift — the manuscript of her memoir. This particular gift, however, unwraps family secrets that force them to confront buried feelings.
Beaumont Community Players will present Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” Oct. 22 to Nov. 6. Director John Manfredi said the audience can expect to be immersed in the Wyeth family’s dynamic.
“People often think of ‘Other Desert Cities’ as a political play, but it is a play about a family and the price of secrets, the price of what you do for family,” he said. “The fact that it is that it has a lot of political trappings is mainly the vehicle to get to that.”
Aside from Brooke, played by Krystal Smith Sanchez, the Wyeth clan are parents Lyman (J.J. Jackson) and Polly (Angel Suitt), who are Reagan-era conservatives, while Brooke is liberal. Add Polly’s sister, Silda (Rachel Cain), fresh from rehab for alcoholism, and Brooke’s brother, Trip (Donny Avery), a TV reality show producer, and the ingredients are in place for a tumultuous family reunion.
In her memoir, Brooke writes about a family tragedy that no one wants to address, the death of oldest son Henry, a ’70s radical. As Henry’s story unfolds over the course of the play, the Wyeths’ façade crumbles.
“She is deeply traumatized by the loss of her brother and her childhood, and she’s never really gotten past it,” Smith Sanchez said. “So she’s an adult and it’s affected her in very deep ways. That’s the nature of her writing the book — it’s a healing process for her, but it’s going to destroy the family.”
The play is set in 2004, and Manfredi said the author set it in that time for a very specific reason.
“It is in the middle of ‘shock and awe,’ three years after 9/11 — it’s very contentious,” he said. “Those of us who are around then remember the how fraught with controversy and emotion that was. But it also harkens back to the last time that we had conflicts like that, because it has elements of the Vietnam War, because that’s where the controversy starts. This family has been political ever since.”
Audiences can expect to be surprised, Manfredi said, because the play does not go where one thinks it’s going to go.
“There’s a lot of heavy themes, but this play also has a lot of laughs,” he said. “Humor is the certainly the defense mechanism for several members of the family when things get hot. They turn to humor to alleviate tension.”
Smith Sanchez said all the family members are both likeable and unlikeable at various points of the play.
“You side with them and then you don’t, but you feel that way about everybody,” she said. “There’s no clear hero. I hope that it makes people think about not just families but all the different social groups that we’re in, and how we deal with politics and how we even stereotype people we love.”
The family matriarch, Polly, places great stock in her ability to control her surroundings and the family’s image, Suitt said.
“She has a quote in the show where she says she doesn’t like weakness, that sensitivity can kill a person in this world,” Suitt said. “And I think that’s what she really believes — that you have to have order, precision, discipline, in order to survive. She’s always trying to control the outcome. I don’t think she’s mean, it comes off that way.”
The older sisters used to write movies for MGM, but they fell out over politics. Silda has secretly supplied information for Brooke’s memoir and Cain said Silda has an ulterior motive because she is extremely liberal and would like to expose the other side.
“But I think the audience will see a family that does really care about each other, they really do,” she said. “And how a secret can destroy lives (and) twist reality.”
Audiences will also have the experience of watching a play presented “in the round,” meaning the seats encircle the stage. It is a challenge for both director and actor alike, Manfredi said.
“The excitement about doing a play in the round is it moves actors out of their comfort zone,” he said. “You don’t play front anymore (because) there’s no front. It forces you to be more real. It forces you to be (focused on) conversations that actually happen between people instead of caring about where the audience is.
“You’ve got to forget about them, because they’re everywhere. You can’t play to them, because they’re all around you.”
The challenging part as a director, Manfredi said, is to realize what everybody is looking at from every different angle.
“There are going to be scenes and dramatic moments that some people are going to be watching the back of an actor and the front of another,” he said. “It’s a much more intimate experience for the audience.”
Jackson said that as a father, he relates to Lyman, and for all the family tension, the play has a simple message.
“No matter what your politics are, a parent loves a child, and love supersedes all,” he said.
“Other Desert Cities” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012.Manfredi said it is an adult play and audiences should be prepared for strong language and adult situations.
“Other Desert Cities” will be performed Oct. 22, 23, 29, 30 and Nov. 4, 5, 6 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m., Oct. 30. Tickets are $26, and $24 for seniors and students..
Beaumont Community Players is located at the Betty Greenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 4155 Laurel Ave. in Beaumont.
For tickets, visit www.beaumontstages.com, or call 409-833-4664.
This story first ran in the Oct. 15, 2021, Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.