REVIEW: “Other Desert Cities” strikes a nerve

Wine Country Theatre’s latest play captures family division perfectly

PASO ROBLES – We can pretend that families never got so heated and pulled apart with political discussions as they are nowadays, or we can accept the fact that politics have and always will cause division within a unit — that is unless the family miraculously agrees on everything. Conservative parents/more liberal children seems to be the norm. Political times were just as tumultuous and generationally-charged within families in the 1960s, but this particular play, set after 9/11 in the year 2004, has its own tension: a family secret.

“Other Desert Cities” is a Broadway play written by Jon Robin Baitz. The family drama is set in Palm Springs, right around Christmas time. Elaine Fournier, who directed the Park Ballroom performance, quoted the words of playwright Lin-Manual Miranda in the playbill, “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” to describe the heart of the play, exploring the question of truth in the unearthing of one’s memories.

The play doesn’t go too far into the politics of the Iraq War that followed and all that, but it does set the tone for mindsets within the parents, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, who have a framed photo of Ronald Reagan on the wall, and their grown children Trip and Brooke. Trip works in television and Brooke has been living the publishing life in New York. The play is more about a book that Brooke has written and the effect it has on its family members. I would venture to say the play is less about politics than it is about expression and pain, and how different people within one family manage trauma. And one of them wants to write about it.

Without giving away what the public needs to go and experience themselves, the audience will feel for all the characters. The local cast is one of the best of the county: Christine Miller, nominated for a Robby Award in L.A., who plays Brooke Wyeth, was the character that resonated the most with me, because as a writer, we all know the best work comes from writing what you know, and Brooke was told not write anything about her very private family. Not easy when she wants their blessing to publish her memoir. The parents went so far as to scold her for opening up and bearing her soul. They had a good point though – it’s your perspective on our lives. How accurate is that? Your truth? My truth? It’s all relative. Tricky business. They wanted her to wait to publish until they were dead.

Garrett Larsen, a SLO County community theater veteran, who plays the character Trip Wyeth, was the actor whose built-up angst in performance made me choke up. His character reminded me of the brothers in my own family — always keeping the peace and avoiding the drama — wondering why everyone has to make such a stink about politics, and why everyone is so rigid about listening to others’ perspectives. But there’s always one in the group who sees the big picture.

His answer to stress was to smoke a bowl — okay, he was not the best at coping, but neither was Cynthia Anthony’s character, “Aunt Silda,” Polly’s sister, who was an a recovering alcoholic whose waking life was a fresh reminder of the comfortable fog and disconnect she struggled to hold on to.

Cynthia Anthony is one of those seamless actresses. She is the founder of Wine Country Theatre and has been starring in local productions for more than 40 years, and was so convincing as one who missed her beloved alcohol that I was chugging my Chardonnay for her. Anthony’s “Silda” character was the black sheep of the family, a labor of love for Polly and Lyman, but the touching part came about that she was, surprisingly, the only source of comfort for Brooke, who went through depression over the family tragedy, something no one seems to want to talk about except her aunt. Which makes the family drama travel a bit deeper. In families, there isn’t the hierarchy of the outer world. There is only love. Support may be complicated, but family members tend to look for it where they can.

Polly, Brooke’s mom, was the unforgiving character whom she didn’t relate to at all.

Mary-Ann Maloof, a SLO Rep actress, brough Polly to life so well I was uncomfortable in my seat and cringing. I wish she would have been easier on Brooke. She was a tough cookie and a real B-word, and I think the audience could see that. As the play’s ‘villian’ her character was, at the same time, as human as they come. Some people, like Polly, live by unwritten social ‘rules’ and Miss Manners guidebooks, rules that make them rigid and judgemental. As much as she loved her family, she wanted too much from her daughter, her son, her husband, her sister — everyone — but she was just as hard on herself. The genius in her character was the imperfection of her character. Polly can be anyone and she’s a piece of almost all of us. But someone who lives by so many rules will often break the biggest one. And in this play, she almost did: disowning her own daughter. That part was too much. The whole room was quiet. And hurt.

And then there was John Laird as Lyman Wyeth, who put on an outstanding performance as the father. Laird’s pedigree is as long as his other cast members, as a Grammy Award-winning vocalist and local star of too many plays to count, he played a loving, supportive father caught between his wife and his daughter. His character kept surprising me. And though the script moved along with metaphorical slugs in the gut and slaps across the face, it also was written with humor. Perhaps that was the takeaway. No matter what, family is family, and though relationships can be rocky and heartbreaking, a little humor to lighten things up goes a long way.

“Other Desert Cities” will be running until March 31. Shows will be Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., with one Thursday evening performance on March 29 at the Park Street Ballroom, 1232 Park Street in Paso Robles. Local wine, cheese plates and snacks are available for purchase to enjoy before and during the show. For tickets, please visit or call 800-838-3006. Prices are $15 for students, $25 for general and $20 for groups of eight or more.

photos by Lacey Moranville

Wine Country Theatre's "Other Desert Cities" includes  John Laird as Lyman, Mary-Ann Maloof as Polly, Christine Miller as Brooke, Garrett Larsen as Trip and Cynthia Anthony as Silda. 


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