Everybody has scars. Be they physical, mental, emotional, etc. everyone has been marked in some way by a choice they or someone near them made. But scars are not ugly. Each one invariably pairs itself with a story. In hindsight, these tales can be humorous or tragic, but typically they are at the very least intriguing. Scars are fascinating; at once they tell of your past exploits yet other times can pinpoint defining moments one would rather forget. Either way, how can we hate our scars if they are a part of what made us who we are today? True, there’s no changing past choices, but that does not mean we are always fond of what it was. Sometimes it’s best to leave old wounds sealed. But, much like receiving a scar, we seldom choose when an old wound may be reopened and who the opener may be.
Other Desert Cities is the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist written by Jon Robin Baites that tells of the Wyeth family reuniting on Christmas Eve 2004 in California. Unfortunately, Brooke, the six-year absent daughter of Polly and Lyman, comes with news that her soon-to-be-published novel is in fact a memoir telling of the darkest moment in the family’s history. What follows is a moral dilemma on multiple levels that questions the value of artistic license, political parties, and familial bonds while never making anyone out to be “right” or “wrong” in their beliefs. No easy feat.
As a family the cast plays well off one another. It’s entirely believable that these individuals grew up with one another, and have some skeletons in the closet they’re not acknowledging. But on an individual basis some are stronger than others. The clear standout of the performance is Whitney Marlett as the California-saturated, GOP-rallying Polly Wyeth who maintains the same intensity of will throughout the production whether she’s arguing in her defense of the event that broke their family or simply insisting someone plays tennis. Her determined, steely eyes are Brooke’s greatest obstacle in publishing her memoir without losing her family. Furthermore, Marlett has a knack for breaking long bouts of tension with one quick line bursting with cynicism and dry wit, a much needed addition to some of the heavier scenes. Also of note is Cinda Donovan portraying Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister, Silda Grauman. Donovan offers the cast and the audience her much-needed love and support of artistic freedom in opposition to the Wyeth parents’ insistence to the contrary. From her first heartwarming cackle at her own thoughts, Donovan immediately indicates her role as the heart of the production.
As for the rest of the cast, I enjoyed all of them to varying degrees though their performances slipped at times. Shelby Miller (Brooke Wyeth) speaks with all the certainty and stubbornness of an artist insisting their message ascends any fallout that may follow, and James Springer (Brooke’s brother Trip Wyeth) continually struggles to be the sarcastic voice of peace and reason throughout the show. Both are capable actors, but nether gave a terribly strong performance. However, I must mention Jose Shenkner (Lymen Wyeth) and his curious enunciation. From the beginning Shenkner clearly delivered each line though his rhythm felt discordant with the production. It wasn’t until intermission, while reading the actors’ bios in the program, that I realized Shenkner has a noted international career in opera. Suddenly it all made sense. During more peaceful moments Shenkner’s lines felt clunky and awkward, but he greatly broadened his range as the night rolled on, the drinks continued pouring, and Lyman became sorrowful, angry, and desperate. Suddenly his operatic history came pouring out. In these moments Shenkner was fantastic (if not occasionally over-the-top with his voice and gestures) and came across as one of the more heart-wrenching characters in the show. One other habit that was quite noticeably among the entire cast was a tendency for lines to be quickly corrected. I don’t fault the actors for not perfectly memorizing a play as intense and claustrophobic as Other Desert Cities, but their attempts to correct the lines were jarringly obvious. Again, nobody is the cast gave a poor performance, but some were simply stronger than others.
One last aspect of the show I feel I must mention; the set design for was absolutely phenomenal. As the curtain opened I was stunned by the meticulous detail displayed by designer Carroll Dolezal. Every inch of the house is fine-tuned to depict the excess of wealth and sleek style of the Wyeth parents, a perfectly beautiful backdrop for the ugliness to come.
Other Desert Cities shows exactly how one should use theatre to raise social and political issues through art, offer the audience each side of a debate without an answer and let them ponder. Everyone is wrong and right in this show, but what matters is that we, the audience, feel each of their arguments are valid. It’s a dilemma; no one is getting out without at least some scars. Other Desert Cities is an intense production that will leave you leaning forward with every line, holding your breath until the final decisions have been made. If you can make the short drive out to Wimberley then I recommend you stop by The Wimberley Players to see this show.
The Wimberley Players’ Other Desert Cities continues playing every Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm until December 6th.