By Thom deMartino
“…I AM California!…” hisses the glowering Trip to his sister Brooke. “And California — Is — Not — Happy.”
The Westminster Community Playhouse has just opened it’s newest production, “Other Desert Cities”, directed by Lenore Stjerne and playing through March 25. The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize nominated play revolves around Brooke Wyeth (Cassidy McMillan) and her uncomfortable Christmas Eve visit to her privileged family in Palm Springs, California, in 2004.
The Wyeths are a showbiz family, in the fullest sense of the word: patriarch Lyman (John Parker) is still renowned and respected, having portrayed gunslingers and detectives back in Hollywood’s heyday, and eventually going on to chair the California G.O.P. in the Reagan era. The siblings’ entitled mother Polly (Kimberly Wooldridge) is judgmental, set in her conservative ways, and anything but politically correct — expressing her worry about her daughter possibly becoming a lesbian “like my sister” after her divorce; or making a racist remark about the food served at the country club, while in the same breath telling her mortified daughter, “I don’t have a bigoted bone in my body!”
Also visiting for the holidays is Polly’s outspoken, liberal and semi-estranged sister Silda Grauman (Janet Arnold Clark) — formerly half of their successful screenwriting team in the 1960’s, before she and her sister’s political views diverged –who is now recovering from a alcoholic relapse, after five years of sobriety. Caught in between the righteous indignation of Aunt Silda and his sister Brooke over Lyman and Polly’s support of the recent Iraq War, is son Trip (Miller Daurey), who writes and produces for television, and acts as the sole moderating element of the rocky family dynamics.
Polly is pushing for Brooke to stay in California, even move in next door: this is her daughter’s first visit back to the West Coast in six years, having stayed back east for treatment for depression after her divorce. But while Brooke has made her living writing magazine articles during that time, she’s now completed her manuscript for a new novel — a memoir, which includes details about her late brother Henry’s suicide, and the events leading up to it — which may split the family asunder, irrevocably.
Brooke is reluctantly willing to let her relationship with her wounded and angry parents wither and die, as she sees the memoir as the only way she can get closure over Henry and go on with her life: but there are yet more secrets, darker still, to come to light at this gathering…
After the success of their last production, the beloved “Fiddler On the Roof,” Westminster Community Playhouse has taken on a heavier, less light-hearted show — and while the first act may feel a bit dry, it lays the groundwork for the more powerful second act: and the audience’s recognition that there is indeed still love in this family… awkward and dysfunctional though it may be. Henry’s suicide is something that the family — save for Brooke — simply will not discuss, leaving a gaping emotional wound that members of the clan simply choose to ignore, rather than contend with the pain that dealing with it will engender.
This pain clearly radiates through in the moving performances of both Wooldridge and Parker as Polly and Lyman. The parents struggle so desperately to keep up appearances: the mother’s hard and uncompromising exterior, to the point of seemingly forgetting her own child, all the while camouflaging her own deep anguish; and the gentle, gruff but supportive father, willing to do anything for his daughter, except this — who becomes enraged and unapproachable about the potential exposure of the events leading up to the loss of his son… and his own mistakes that contributed to it.
Silda is almost a liberal caricature, brought to fruition by Clark’s talents — content to point fingers and blame for the problems of the country and world at large, while secretly disguising her own frailty and guilt over the broken state of her family. McMillan’s Brooke starts off tentatively, nervous and subdued, as if still contending with the ghost of her depression, as well as dreading her family’s reaction to her memoir: but as the story progresses, and we begin to see just how important to her continued existence that this novel is, the candle flame that is Brooke’s restrained emotion begins to ignite into a bonfire of determination and self-preservation.
Miller Daurey as the even-keeled Trip, providing the balance between ideologies in the family and a voice of reason, is frequently a subtly funny and necessary comic relief to some of the heavier moments of the piece: but when he reaches his own breaking point with the family dysfunction, his fury powerfully shakes the room, and the audience.
“Other Desert Cities” may at first feel to be a long, moving ride through the wasteland of a broken family — but upon reaching the destination, you’ll be awfully glad you did.
“Other Desert Cities.” Cassidy McMillan, Kimberly Wooldridge and John Parker star in this tale of family, depression, uncomfortable truths and dark secrets come to light. Now playing through March 25 at the Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St, Westminster, CA 92683: ticketing information available online at http://wcpstage.com., or call 714-893-8626.
Categories: Arts & Leisure