Family friction takes center stage at Wichita Community Theatre this week. Its latest production, “Other Desert Cities,” is a character-driven drama that focuses on political clashes, personality conflicts and long-held secrets. The director of the local production says it’s the richness of the characters that audiences will enjoy the most.
“They’re real people,” said Kenneth Mitchell. “Part of how they show their love is pushing each other’s buttons. It’s really high drama that has comedic elements, but by the time the play is over you really don’t know how to feel about the characters. I like plays that push the envelope just a little bit, and this one certainly does that.”
The play by Jon Robin Baitz debuted off Broadway in January 2011 and was transferred to Broadway that November. It was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama and nominated for five Tony Awards. Mitchell said the freshness adds appeal.
“It’s not very apologetic at all. It’s a very modern play, and there aren’t enough of them. This is brand new.”
Set in Palm Springs, Calif., during the Christmas season of 2004, the plot revolves around tensions that surface when Brook Wyeth returns to her wealthy family’s home after living in New York for six years. She brings with her news that her memoir will soon be published. Her Hollywood-connected parents, ex-screenwriter Polly Wyeth and former B-list film star and ambassador Lyman Wyeth, aren’t exactly thrilled, as a pivotal part of her story revolves around a tragic event no one wants to revisit.
Adding to the drama is a visit from Polly’s sister, Silda, who is fresh out of rehab. The sisters co-wrote a series of MGM comedies in the 1960s but have been divided by political differences in the years since. Polly and Lyman are active in California Republican politics, while Silda is a committed liberal.
Mitchell said the political differences between the characters are a metaphor for deeper issues.
“For me the politics isn’t the driving issue of the play,” he said. “The politics is more who these characters are. It’s the social world that they wanted to be a part of. It’s not a play that preaches a certain way or that rides hard against conservatism or being liberal. You won’t leave the play caring about the characters’ politics because it really is just a play about a family.”
Nearly all of the conflict revolves around Polly and Lyman fighting to keep secret the events that surrounded the death of their son Henry, who was involved in a botched bombing protesting the Vietnam War. Brook feels that her parents abandoned him in his hour of need, while her parents are still struggling to reconcile philosophical differences that divided thousands of families in the 1960s.
While political divergence peppers the dialogue, the play’s themes are more universal and cut across ideological divides.
“The issue that stands out more than politics are issues that deal strongly with depression and addiction,” Mitchell said. “This play also deals very strongly with loss. This play is more about secrets, how they affect people, and if those secrets should be kept.”
Mitchell said the play is truly an ensemble production, with each character adding significant depth to the story. The adaptation stars Jennifer Clayton as Brooke, while Deb Campbell and David Weills take on the roles of Polly and Lyman. Beth Wise plays Silda Grauman. Michael Webber rounds out the cast in his portrayal of Trip Wyeth, Brook’s younger brother and the only member of the family who is more neutral and detached from much of the drama.
The two-act show runs for about two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission. Due to its subject matter, the play is recommended for more mature audiences.
“It’s one of those plays where the protagonist and the antagonist switches constantly,” Mitchell said. “Ultimately, It’s all about family; it really is about love. Everything that is done in this show is about love, even though it doesn’t always appear that way.”