By Bridgette M. Redman
The very secrets we keep to protect each other are often the secrets that drive us apart and interfere with us being happy, loving and whole people.
This is true when talking about a family or talking about a country. It is also the concept that imbues "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, currently being performed at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, with such power and heartbreak.
The script is strengthened by the way Baitz seamlessly melds national and familial concerns while never forcing either into an ill-fitting mold. Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Naz Edwards and Hugh Maguire) are old-guard California Republicans who parent adult children who are as liberal as they are conservative. Set on Christmas Eve in 2003 with the Iraq War as the backdrop, Brooke (Leah Smith) comes home for the first time in six years to visit her parents. They're joined by brother Trip (Bryan Lark) and Polly's sister Silda Grauman (Sandra Birch).
David Wolber directs this cast of highly experienced artists and each one brings individual strengths to the stage.
Edwards is the hard-edged mother who loves people by pushing them through an intolerance of any weakness. She criticizes, passes judgment, controls and points out flaws. She is also the first person to show up when anyone is needed. She takes in the sick, sits at hospital bedsides and rallies the troops to help the beleaguered. Yet none of this seems even slightly out of synch in the portrayal Edwards creates. She is always completely and totally in control of each gesture and movement, though she had a few moments of vocal weakness where her lines were lost to part of the audience.
Smith's Brooke is equally enigmatical. Her weaknesses and flaws are quickly shown to the audience, but in ways that make her sympathetic at first. It is only later when she insists that art trumps life that her selfishness begins to shine through. Smith deftly handles the depths of this character and the different sides she must show as the daughter who is still trying to find a way to be an adult independent of her family.
As the former actor and GOP chairman, Maguire creates a personality with echoes of Ronald Reagan's charisma. He is devoted to his family and quick to cover up the harsher sides of the family. He's also a supreme secret keeper and simply refuses to talk about those things which might indict him or are too painful to revisit.
Birch owns the stage every moment she is on it. She has a flamboyance and larger-than-life style that sharply contrasts with her sister and the well-controlled, whitewashed environment in which she is currently stuck. She is critical and frustrated, her own choices having left her powerless and under the care of those she thinks are responsible for all that is wrong in the world. Even her outfit, provided by costume designer Mary Copenhagen, sets her apart from the rest of the family.
Lark has one of the more difficult roles, as he must be the glue that holds everyone together. Trip is the person that everyone trusts and everyone expects to play peacemaker. Ironically, Lark is the one who seemed the most disconnected from the cast.
Dan Walker creates a set that is sanitized and cleaned, as controlled as the couple that inhabits it. Yet there are also hanging exits that open on dark spaces beyond, a choice that well captures the feel of the family secrets.
"Other Desert Cities" had some line bobbles opening night, but this expert cast quickly recovered from them and corrected them smoothly. Overall, they captured the show's intensity, questioning, and heartbreak. They raise questions that are hard to answer, but leave the audience with a feeling of hope – hope that we can heal, hope that we can find a way to relate to each other, and hope that not all secrets are sinister.
"Other Desert Cities" is a co-production with Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre.
'Other Desert Cities'
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road., West Bloomfield. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through May 18. $41-48. 2 hours, 21 minutes. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org