“Other Desert Cities”: Family secret fuels holiday meltdown

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The holidays: the perfect opportunity to spend time with your family, put your feet up and relax. In “Other Desert Cities,” the only sign of Christmas in the Wyeth’s Palm Springs mansion is the towering Christmas tree. Throughout the play, the focus shifts away from the holidays as Brooke kicks up dust among her family.

The atmosphere in the Wyeth household is anything but calming since loud-mouth, conservative parents Polly and Lyman set the tempo. Having retired to Palm Springs for some seclusion, their kids Brooke and Trip have no attachment to the barren “desert city.” Surface-level conversations consist of tennis and the country club.

For Brooke, there is more on her mind than just coasting through the holidays. Brooke, a writer struggling with serious depression, brings the manuscript of her next “novel” to share with the family. The problem is that her new book isn’t a novel. Instead, it is a memoir exposing the story of her parents’ betrayal of her brother who passed away when Brooke was young.

Using her writing as an outlet to channel her emotions, the rest of her family has a hard time coming to terms with what she’s done – especially her parents. Desperate for support, it boils down to one question for Brooke. Should she publish the book?

Tracy Michelle Arnold is as dynamic as the emotionally-fragile Brooke. It takes some time to dissect this complex character, and Arnold’s portrayal leaves this perfect feeling of discontent. With a complicated history, Brooke carries a tough shell, and Arnold is at her best when the outer shell starts to crack revealing Brooke’s vulnerable side. Brooke is not the character that you want to root for, but certainly the character you feel for as she struggles for someone to understand.

Deanna Dungan and Chelcie Ross, as Polly and Lyman, anchor the show. Dungan’s zippy one-liners fly naturally as she saunters around the stage, while her bitterness radiates through her brutal honesty. While Lyman shows a softer side for Brooke, Ross’ depiction of the conflicted parent is strong.

For added comic relief, the brother Trip, played by John Hoogenakker, and crazy Aunt Silda, played by Linda Kimbrough, bring in the laughs but could use some more power. Trip’s neutral take on family issues doesn’t add much to the already underwritten character, while Aunt Silda’s assistance to Brooke throughout the writing process of her memoir only fuels the fire between Brooke and her parents, sidelining Silda.

Without a doubt, playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s use of subtle complexities and focused writing keeps the show moving. When dealing with family problems and secrets, the amount of humor is a pleasant surprise, making it feel genuine and real.

The one moment that drags is in the opening of Act Two when a discussion between Brooke and Trip doesn’t propel much.

The set design by Thomas Lynch, although visually impressive, was not functionally desirable. Everything felt pushed upstage, trapping the sound and allowing for minimal playing space. However, the simple costume design by Kaye Voyce was spot on, capturing the essence of each character through Brooke’s muted colors and Polly’s vibrant blue.

By offering an honest look at family dynamics, the show takes a unique journey with a not-so-typical ending still leaving many unanswered questions. With sensitive subjects front of mind, the Wyeth family each puts up their protective shield keeping in those feelings. As time goes on, secrets are spilled not leaving much high and dry in the desert.

“Other Desert Cities” runs through Feb. 17, 2013, in the Albert Theatre. Tickets range from $25-$86 and are subject to change. Day-of student tickets are available for $10 online at 10 a.m. and at the box office at 12 p.m.