Other Desert Cities is yet another award winning Broadway play made available for Brisbane audiences thanks to the joint efforts of the Queensland Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company.
Written by Professor Jon Robin Baitz (veteran playwright, and executive producer of the long running American ABC series Brothers & Sisters), Other Desert Cities was nominated for five Tony Awards in 2012, with Judith Light taking the award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as Silda Grauman.
The play centres on the lives of a wealthy, and extremely privileged political family. Set in Palm Springs, California, the audience is invited into the living room of the Wyeth family on the eve of Christmas, 2004, just sigh of two months after George W. Bush was re-elected for a second term. Robert Coleby plays the patriarch of this family, Lyman Wyeth, a former Republican Senator slash Actor; who, though retired, still remains a powerful figure within the Republican Party elite upper tier. His wife, Polly, played by Janet Andrewartha (who might remember from Prisoner, or more-likely Neighbours), is an ex-Hollywood Screenwriter, and the emotional cold keystone keeping this dysfunctional family unit from tumbling down. Polly has recently taken in her alcoholic sister, and ex-partner in screenwriting, Silda, following her sister’s most recent stint in rehab. Silda has mysteriously fallen off the wagon after five long years of sobriety. The Wyeth’s two children have recently arrived to celebrate the holidays as a family, or to try. TV Producer, son Trip (Conrad Coleby, real-life son of Robert), and writer daughter Brooke (Rebecca Davis), are far more liberal minded than their extreme right parents; a clash of ideology that drives the tension for the first half of the play. Soon Brooke reveals that she has not only penned, but also found publication and press coverage for, a tell-all memoire, Love and Mercy (the original title of the play), that details the family’s sordid past, focusing heavily on terrorist involvement, and suicide of their much older brother Henry during the Vietnam war. We begin to learn that this is a family that has built walls to protect secrets, and that these walls are keeping the family apart.
The set is no less than sublime. Set Designer Christina Smith has gone a different direction to the Melbourne incarnation that was more voyeuristic, and has instead opened up the near TV show quality set by dispensing with the glass windows. This invited the audience into the Wyeth’s living room, and makes the play more intimate. I wondered at one point if some poor Palm Springs resident woke one morning to find a sizable portion of their house missing. The set comes complete with functioning fireplace, and a well stocked bar to torment the inner-alcoholic. Lighting, by Trent Suidgeest, employs a few tricks to give credibility to the lap pool, as well as moving between night and day, and drew a sound of awe from the audience when the fireplace was first lit.
As is expected of a QTC production, all actors gave solid performances. Davis did a solid job maintaining the persona of an emotional wreck throughout the majority of the production. Andrewartha also giving a note worthy performance, especially in the emotional crescendo that precedes the grand reveal. However, it is Conrad Coleby who gives the most enjoyable performance, as his character added the colour the play desperately needed at times.
The highlight of this play is the story. This is a masterful piece of story telling. The foreshadowing is subtle enough to escape notice, but poignant enough to allow for a surprising and very satisfying twist. This play is a study in great characterisation. All characters are complex, and multi-faceted—remarkable given that they all begin somewhat cliché.
Memoire as a genre of writing is fairly contentious, and it’s fiercely interesting to see examine in this play where artistic freedom clash with an individual’s right to privacy. It brings into question how much license we have over our own story, and how much of our story is fiction. After all, our memories are a non-genuine recalling that is altered by our bias to set us up as a victim or hero.
Other Desert Cities will be playing at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre till September 1. We’re fortunate to have access to such quality plays right here in Brisbane, so get yourself a long to see this one—you won’t be disappointed.