Review “Other Desert Cities”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Feb. 17
Tickets: $25-$86
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Family secrets are at the core of “Other Desert Cities,” but what drives Jon Robin Baitz’s old-fashioned well-made play are the political and personal conflicts among the characters and a potent moral dilemma. In Goodman Theatre’s carefully directed and compellingly acted Chicago premiere of this recent Broadway hit, the relationships unfold with such complexity and trenchant humor that the great reveal is almost an anti-climactic cop-out, or would be if it weren’t essential to the message that love and compassion tend to trump principles, especially where children are concerned.

The occasion is a Christmas gathering in 2004 at the Palm Springs, Calif., home of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a ranch house realized in all its sprawling splendor, complete with massive stone mantle and a wall of windows, by set designer Thomas Lynch. Staunch conservatives who hold fast to Reagan-era ethics — and numbered the Reagans among their friends, as photos on the walls attest — Lyman (Chelcie Ross), a retired actor and former ambassador, and Polly (Deanna Dunagan), a Texas-born Jew and one-time Hollywood screenwriter, have retreated to this time-trapped other desert for reasons that aren’t at first apparent. Living with them is Polly’s sister and erstwhile writing partner, Silda (Linda Kimbrough), a recovering alcoholic and unrepentant lefty of the old school. Visiting for the holidays are Lyman and Polly’s recently divorced daughter, Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold), a novelist and liberal with a history of mental illness who lives in New York, and her younger brother, Trip (John Hoogenakker), a determinedly apolitical producer of reality TV shows.

The normal tensions that arise when disparate personalities who are bound together by blood come in close contact are exacerbated by the fact that Brooke, whose well-received first novel was followed by a long drought, has written a tell-all memoir about her beloved older brother, Henry, a druggie and radical allegedly involved in an early-1970s terrorist bombing, whose apparent suicide scarred her life forever and humiliated her parents beyond measure. She’s not asking their permission to publish but she does hope for their approval, as well as the support of Trip and of Silda, who read chapters and filled in details for arguably vengeful reasons.

Needless to say, Lyman and Polly are dead set against publication, and they don’t even have wiggle room to reconsider, because Brooke tells them “The New Yorker” is planning to run pre-publication excerpts (something that would be unlikely) in a couple of months. Arguments abound on both sides of a debate that boils down to the question: Does a person have the right to write about his/her life even if it means profoundly hurting loved ones?

Neither side is willing to back down, and Lyman, generally the more sympathetic parent, tells Brooke that she’ll be cut out of their lives if the book comes out. But ultimately, Baitz sidesteps the question, because Brooke learns that almost nothing she believed was true, necessitating revisions. And by the time of the last scene at her book reading in 2010, both her parents have died.

Director Henry Wishcamper has cast the Goodman production extremely well. The lanky Ross (a regular as Conrad Hilton on “Mad Men”) is letter perfect as an aging movie star in the Charlton Heston mold, and both his deceptively laid-back demeanor and deeply mellow voice provide an ideal counterpoint to Deanna Dunagan’s acid-tongued Polly, the spitting image of Nancy Reagan with her impeccably coiffed hair and appropriate outfits. Dunagan has that hard-as-nails, unforgiving mother-from-hell down pat, and it’s only in brief flashes that we become aware of hints of the vulnerability underneath.

Arnold’s Brooke captures the nervous insecurity and fragility of the emotionally damaged adult offspring of such an opinionated and judgmental mother, but we don’t see quite enough of the inner strength (that makes her her mother’s daughter) to believe that she wouldn’t cave in, especially given her warmer feelings for Lyman. Hoogenackker is terrific and very funny as Trip, the would-be peacemaker who wants to stay out of the fray as much as possible, though occasionally his resentments rise to the surface. Kimbrough has great comic chops as the on-edge Silda, while squelching some of her long-simmering anger.

While David Lander’s desert-bright lighting and Kaye Voyce’s costumes (Silda’s bargain-basement Pucci dress is hilarious) are apropos, as is Richard Woodbury’s music, the one problem is his sound design. Some of the dialogue is hard to decipher, and I’m not sure whether to blame the acoustics or Wishcamper’s occasionally awkward blocking – with crucial scenes playing out near the back of the stage. Still, that’s a minor quibble about what is otherwise a first-rate show.