By PAM HARBAUGH
The Palm Springs home of Lyman and Polly Wyeth is perfectly set for the holidays. The pillows are plumped just so. All the gifts beneath the Christmas tree sit in an aesthetically pleasing order. Even the fireplace imparts a sense of cool serenity.
But in Jon Robin Baitz’ “Other Desert Cities,” all this tranquility and balance becomes bombarded with chaos and confrontation when Brooke Wyeth comes home for the holidays. And, as on stage now at the Mad Cow Theatre in Orlando, the confrontation becomes rife with emotion and ultimately an intriguing journey to the truth behind the Wyeth family.
As is written by Mr. Baitz, the story slowly unwinds with information necessary to piecing together the family’s backstory, a crucial link in the play’s action. Indeed, Mr. Baitz is no friend of conventional exposition. It may take you until the second act to piece together the Wyeth’s timeline. He puts the dots out there, it is up to you to listen intently and draw the connecting lines.
Set in 2004, the play starts with the parents and their grown children returning from a rousing game of tennis. As directed by Aradhana Tiwari, the family exudes forced gaiety. They are all a little too energetic. Too happy to be with each other. Their gestures and movements feel contrived.
The politically conservative parents express pride that their daughter’s book is being published and that their son’s TV show is doing well. Indeed, they’re all about to send you up the functional family tree until, out of nowhere, Brooke implies that they shouldn’t forget they had three children. A few minutes later, she reveals to her brother, Trip, that the book is actually a memoir detailing the murky context of their older brother’s suicide.
And that’s when the real action begins. The parents and their son let down their snappy banter and sit-com style affected behavior and facts begin their journey to an ultimate truth.
Marty Stonerock winds up Polly Wyeth, the mother, into a compact rubber band about to explode. Neat as a pin, she fusses over her home, making sure the couch and chairs are kept impeccably stylish. Polly is a former scriptwriter who now calls Nancy Reagan her friend. She is the queen of the opinionated come-back and arbiter of not only how one should dress, but how one should live.
Joe Candelora brings a real fatherly love and frustration to Lyman Wyeth, the understanding man who tries to keep wife Polly and daughter Brooke civil with each other. A former movie actor turned politician, he was once the head of the GOP and talks about Ron (Reagan) with fondness. Now, though, he relishes his retirement but still finds it easy to slip into social and political diatribe.
Matthew Natale Rush is the likeable son, Trip, a TV producer of a popular reality show. The youngest Wyeth, he seems on the surface to be the most easy-going. But, his presence becomes the most surprising one. Mr. Rush paints his character with depth and a low-keyed sadness that his family doesn’t really know who he is. Indeed, Brooke won’t even deign to watch his television show.
Ginger Lee McDermott embues both an ease and urgency to her portrayal of complex Brooke, the brilliant but depressed author who spent months in an institution. We, along with Lyman and Polly, feel for Brooke. Worry for her. Want to introduce her to a nice guy. After her family begs her not to publish her book, we believe her when she says she can’t help but write the truth as she sees it. That is what she must do in order to breathe.
A fifth character, Silda Grauman, is Polly’s alcoholic sister and former script writing partner. Silda, portrayed with lively sass by Marion Marsh, lives with Polly and Lyman and stands up for Brooke.
There is an organic feel to all the emotional combat and the ultra cool scenery, lighting and sound designs. It is as if the director, Ms. Tiwari, has a kind of delicate “Tai-Chi” concept, where smooth, graceful movement from scene to scene will eventually explode into battle.
Scenic designer William Elliot creates a fine depiction of a Palm Springs home, complete with retro-60s touches (a sly metaphor for what is revealed in the story). Erin Miller’s lighting design is simply sublime, bringing a graceful flow to the tumult. And Sony Tiwari’s sound design creates a sense of fragile memory.
This splendid and surprising production sneaks up on you. It casts its line, teases you with a little morsel and before you know it, you’re hooked.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Other Desert Cities” runs through Oct. 27 at Mad Cow Theatre, 54 West Church St., Orlando. 7:30 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets begin at .25 plus handling. Discounts available for seniors. Call 407-297-8788 or visit www.madcowtheatre.com.