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Engeman Stages Powerful Version Of ‘Other Desert Cities’ 

Joan Porter and Nancy Lemenager star as Silda and Brooke in the John W. Engeman Theater’s production of “Other Desert Cities.”

It’s Christmas Eve, 2004, but all is not “merry and bright” at the Palm Springs home of arch conservatives, Lyman and Polly Wyeth. Their ultra-liberal daughter, Brooke, is home for the holidays for the first time in six years. The family may be happy to see her, but they are also walking on eggshells.

It’s not just the political differences that will be setting off sparks. Her parents and her younger brother are worried because Brooke’s return coincides with her self-proclaimed recovery from a massive emotional breakdown. The family is not sure she has recuperated, though. Lyman will go to any length to avoid discussing his daughter’s illness. Polly believes depression is a weakness; something she won’t tolerate.

“Other Desert Cities” is a very powerful production at the John W. Engeman Theater.  The play opened on Jan. 23 and runs through March 9. It is beautifully directed by Richard T. Dolce and powerfully acted by the cast.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz has a winning way of exploring family dynamics, first by gently letting his audiences come to know his characters during funny moments, then artfully letting their true personalities explode during confrontations that are often bitter and painfully nasty.

Baitz created the popular ABC Television Network’s series “Brothers and Sisters,” which ran successfully for several years. “Other Desert Cities” won the Outer Critics Award during its New York theatrical run in 2011.

The play focuses on the dysfunctional Wyeth family and a painful secret that has rocked them to their core. Lyman (Phillip Clark) and Polly (Joy Franz) appear to be modeled after Ron and Nancy Reagan. The couple seems to be closer to each other than to their adult children, Brooke (Nancy Lemenager) and Trip (Christopher Bolan). As the play progresses, we learn that, indeed, the Wyeths were dear friends to the Reagans.

Lyman is a nice guy who just wants the family to get along. Polly, who cut her teeth on politics and motherhood during a friendly mentorship by Nancy, is a woman who will protect her husband from any and everything – even the slings and arrows their Patti Davis-type daughter, Brooke, is prone to throw in her parents’ direction. Younger son Trip, a successful reality TV show producer, is apolitical and serves as the mediator when family arguments get out of hand.

Act One is peppered with many comical moments. The snappy, easy one-liners that permeate much of the early part of Act One are soon pushed to the side, by Brooke’s announcement that she’s going to be published again. Initially, that is good news to her family. After all, much of Brooke’s emotional frailty, they believe, has been a result of her not being able to write anything since her first and only other book, a critically acclaimed novel, was published six years earlier.

Joy turns to rage quickly, though, when Brooke announces her new book is a memoir. At its heart, it is the very public unveiling of an explosive family secret that could well destroy them.

The secret revolves around the Wyeths’ oldest son, Henry, who was implicated in the fire-bombing of a military recruiting center during the l970s. One person was killed during the explosion. Henry, a drug addict, whose radical leanings were a constant embarrassment to his parents, apparently took his own life shortly after the bombing, thus tearing the family even further apart.

The remainder of the play focuses on the deep wounds each and every member of the Wyeth clan faced as a result of Henry’s actions. How can a family ever recover from such a tragedy, if its facts are pushed down so deeply within each and every one of them that they have never honestly been discussed?

That is the dilemma facing the Wyeths. How it is eventually handled is what “Other Desert Cities” is about.

Franz and Clark are most believable as parents whose devastation over losing a son was often colored by their desire not to be humiliated by their political friends. Bolan gives a most memorable performance as the youngest child who has become accustomed to playing peacemaker. Lemenager is best when her character is going head-to-head with the mother whom she believes she has nothing in common with. During their battles, it’s easy to see that Brooke is definitely her mother’s daughter.

Joan Porter rounds out the cast. She plays Silda Grauman, Polly’s ultra-liberal, alcoholic sister, fresh out of rehab. While many audience members laughed uproariously at Porter’s comedic antics onstage, she appeared to present Silda as a caricature, rather than a flesh and blood character who detests the reality of her existence – the fact that she must depend on the sister she dislikes for her daily survival.

“Other Desert Cities” strips away the stereotypes we Americans have all come to know and believe about people of differing political persuasions. It is a powerful drama that celebrates family, love and loyalty, even at the times when hope seems the dimmest.

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