The events that occurred in America on September 11, 2001 still continue to create ripple effects around the world, more than a decade later.
As an American who was living in the US at the time of the attacks, as well as the time that this play is set (2004), it’s interesting to see what Australians make of this particular era in the American psyche via this particular play. The company has managed to produce a facsimile of a family that could exist in the States, but it is only an impression. The piece rings hollow as an empty shell; it lacks a beating heart at its centre.
Once again, the set and lighting are exquisite, especially Trent Suidgeest’s sunrises, sunsets and reflected water effects. All things considered, the set design by Christina Smith does a good job of mitigating the vast space of the stage in order to facilitate the intimacy required by the story. By constructing a realistic desert dwelling that reflects this family’s privilege in its expansive elegance, while also bringing the playing space onto the apron and as close to the audience as possible, we sense a contrast between this family’s expectations and its needs. Some of this productions more gorgeous moments were to be found not in the dialogue, but in these low-key, atmospheric transitions between scenes, where sound designer Tony Brumpton’s cool soundtrack worked in perfect conjunction with Suidgeest’s painted desert lights, as the family went about their business.
Ultimately this drama fails to connect. The actors are trying very hard to convince us that something important and fascinating is going on, but when the time comes to drop the play’s bomb, it lands with a dull thud. The set-up is long, and the crackling tension that should be there to propel the action forward is missing. It was difficult to place sympathy with anyone but Trip (Conrad Coleby) and Silda (Vivienne Garrett), who drifted around the periphery of this story, offering a bit of relief from the grandiose lamentations from mother and daughter. Lyman (Robert Coleby) is stuck in the middle, a hollow man, with nothing to offer either side of the debate or the drama.
The conflict between mother and daughter seems superficial; we know they’re at each other’s throats, but that appears to be the extent of the struggle. Neither one ever falters in her stance, or lets us think that either will change her mind, or be won over, so that parallelism tends to exclude those moments of “will they or won’t they?” that are fundamental to keeping the audience hooked. Brooke (Rebecca Davis) was so physically tense the whole time that it was difficult to want to watch her; this was a character choice that kept her closed off from my sympathies. Polly (Janet Andrewartha) was fearsome and droll, but I’m not sure that these qualities weren’t just a garment Andrewartha donned when appropriate to the text and the staging.
I will say that Kate Cherry has assembled a cast that very much looks like a family. I suppose it helps when she employs real life parents and offspring (Robert and Conrad Coleby), as she did with her recent production of The Importance of Being Earnest. However, while Other Desert Cities may have been a recent hit on Broadway, it lands slightly off the mark here in Perth.