Review: PCS’s ‘Other Desert Cities’ explores complex familial relationships

By Christina Perryman

Families can be complex. Even families that display the most love can be sometimes rough or even tough to navigate. Jon Robin Baitz’s dramatic play, “Other Desert Cities,” provides a glimpse into an upscale California family full of secrets and long held grudges. The show, on stage at The Players Club of Swarthmore, excellently directed by Thomas-Robert Irvin, has rich characters and witty dialog, while, not always my particular cup of tea, goes a long way toward showing the ever changing dynamics of family life.

Novelist Brooke Wyeth returns home for Christmas after suffering a depressive breakdown. There, she reconnects with her younger brother, Trip, and recovering alcoholic aunt, Silda, while trying to avoid the judgemental observances of her mother, Polly, and smothering of her father, Lyman. Brooke’s liberal ideology constantly clashes with her parents’ conservative views. Polly and Lyman are happy to have Brooke home after her crisis, but Brooke drops a bombshell that blows the weekend wide open — she penned a tell-all memoir about a dark period in the family history.

The Players Club of Swarthmore’s current production of Other Desert Cities, directed by Thomas-Robert Irvin. The show runs October 20-November 4 at Players Club of Swarthmore theater at 614 Fairview Ave., Swarthmore.

Two decades earlier, Brooke’s older brother committed suicide after being accused of setting off a bomb that killed a man. Brooke was never fully able to process the loss of her beloved brother and blamed her parents’ strict upbringing on his demise. Polly and Lyman bitterly oppose Brooke publishing the novel, as it will thrust the family back into the bitter spotlight. They beg her to at least wait until they are dead. Brooke insists the book needs to be published, for her own mental survival and refuses to wait. This forces Polly and Lyman to relate details of Henry’s “suicide” that no one knows, a shocking twist to the audience.

Players Club boast a tremendous cast that breathes life into the characters. Emily-Grace Murray (Brooke), Nancy Bennett (Polly), Leigh Jacobs (Lyman), Brandon Young (Trip) and Lorraine Barrett (Silda) perfectly capture the tumult of the subject matter. Bennett is abrasive and unyielding, yet her love for her daughter is clear and her struggle to keep certain secrets hidden shows in her facial expressions. Jacobs is the pillar of the family. He has a wide range of emotions, from love to anger to resignation, and then some.

Young brings much needed humor to the heaviness of the subject matter. His character was less effected by Henry’s death, since he was only five when it happened. As an adult, Trip looks for the joy in things because, let’s face it, life can be hard. Young does a nice job of balancing the caustic relationship between the other characters. He uses his voice and big, bold movements to great effect. Barrett, too, provides some comic relief, although not in as lighthearted a manner. Barrett brings a subtle dark humor to her troubled character.

Murray is terrific as Brooke. She truly captures the struggles Brooke faces through her body language and facial expressions, particularly toward the end of the play. Murray appears to be barely holding it all together and that’s evidenced by the tight way she holds herself and the look on her face. In my eyes, Brooke is not a very likable character, she has little concept of consequences. And as someone who suffers from depression, I actually find Brooke difficult to relate to. But Murray changes that slightly. Under her care, Brooke is still damaged, but in a way other damaged people recognize.

Timothy P. Oskin created a beautiful set that perfectly expresses the Wyeth’s wealth. Great costumes by Becky Wright and lighting design by Ryan Stone compliment the piece.

“Other Desert Cities” runs at Players Club of Swarthmore, 614

The Players Club of Swarthmore’s upcoming production of Other Desert Cities, directed by Thomas-Robert Irvin. The show runs October 20-November 4 at Players Club of Swarthmore theater at 614 Fairview Ave., Swarthmore.

Fairview Avenue, Swarthmore, through Nov. 4. Show times are 7:30 p.m., Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 8 p.m., Oct. 27, 28 and Nov. 3 and 4, and 2 p.m. Oct. 29 (which is a Meet The Artists Performance). Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for students 18 and younger, with ID. There is strong language and subject matter that may not be appropriate for younger audiences. For tickets or information, call 610-328-4271 or visit http://www.pcstheater.org.