Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Welcome to the loving Wyeth household, where a family reunion threatens in a matter of a few short hours to turn into family dissolution. City Lights Theater Company opens its 34th season with the Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz, in a production that is magnificently directed to near perfection by John McCluggage. Taking Mr. Baitz's Pulitzer Prize finalist script packed with bitingly funny, heartbreakingly gripping, and intellectually stimulating dialogue, the director has molded together a cast in which there is not one individual star, but a combined star cluster of five actors highly dependent on each other for their total, synergistic effect of brilliance.
Brooke Wyeth has arrived at her parents' Palm Springs home for the first time in six yearsyears when she battled debilitating depression but also worked on her second book, now ready to be published and soon to be featured in The New Yorker. The issue is, this is not a novel as was her first publication. This is a memoir entitled "Love and Mercy," and it is going to take tons of both when her parents discover that the subject is their own family and a son/brother who committed suicide after scorching an innocent victim in a firebomb protest over the Vietnam War. As friends of the Reagans who also left Hollywood B-films to enter politics, Polly and Lyman never discuss their son, and they have come to the desert to escape his memory.
Lauren Tothero is the diminutive, thirty-ish Brooke who alternates between bold, loud sparring with her dominating mother and balled-up retreats while hugging her knees on the floor or couch. She is passionate in her pursuit of understanding who her adored older brother ("my best friend") Harry really was and what led him to jump naked into freezing water rather than seek the solace of his familyespecially her, his younger sister for whom he did not even leave a note before the final plunge. She is also willing to risk everything, even the family she still loves deeply, in order to publish her truth. "The only objective I have is to myself," she defiantly decrees. Ms. Tothero brings a wonderful mixture of looking visually vulnerable enough to break down any minute and being strong enough to stand up against the barrage of pleas and then attacks hammered by a family entreating her not to publish.
Head down, finger pointing, eyes fierce, and in constant motion to gain the best advantage of position, Polly Wyeth is a mother who can dish out insults, sarcasm, and politically conservative "truths" faster than most people can breathe in and out. Her worldview is that all problems are due to "drugs and lefties whining," there is too much political correctness, and the current generation is either "vegans or meth addicts or both at the same time." She is horrified by what might be in that two-inch stack of pages her daughter has brought home for her to read, noting in cold, stark tone, "The ice gets thin when it involves WE the living."
As Polly, Mary Gibboney is absolutely persuasive in her pointed and poignant portrayal. Here is a mother who clearly loves her husband and children as can be seen when she allows a minute's gaze of admiration and adoration. However, she is also a mother who cannot wait a minute in order to come in for another one-upping and preempting in order to win her arguments. After all, she belts, "Why is it children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life?" This Polly is not going to give it to them, let's be clear about that.
The apple of Polly's eye is clearly Lyman, her rather low-key, professorial-looking husband who at first just wants to keep the peace. He urges his daughter to "Just wait 'til we are gone" to publish a book he shows no interest in reading. As Lyman, Jeff Kramer speaks slowly with many thought-filled pauses and with looks of compassion toward both sides of his warring family. He also brings gentle admiration for the more Republican side of things and is quick to defend those views but without the bitterness of his wife. However, as the waves of revelation and secrets roll in, Lyman does finally erupt in emotion and defensiveness that has long lain deeply hidden behind that outward calm.
Unmentioned as yet, but very much present is Polly's sister Silda Grauman, a recovering (yet again) alcoholic who once wrote movie scripts with her sister but now is dependent on Polly and Lyman for her livelihood, shelter, and sobriety (maybe). Karen DeHart is the stringy-haired sister and aunt wearing wild prints of big color who has a bit of earth mother in her demeanor. She is keenly skilled in her own ability to use edgy wit and well-positioned phrases to make her points in defense of her niece (or herself) and particularly in offense directed at her sister. "You know, I'm going to have to learn how to deal with you now that I'm sober," she drily tells Polly. As Silda, Ms. DeHart hangs back in the shadows, watching intently her sister's family go at it until she clearly is about to burst, zooming in with precision and power to add zingers and/or support. To Brooke, she encourages publication, saying, "Don't back down. You'll win because you have ideas and they only have fear."
The final piece of this highly integrated puzzle of family members is the twenty-five-year-old Trip, a producer of a TV courtroom reality show. Sean Okuniewicz is the boyish Trip, who at times still shows the moves, looks, and mannerisms of the teen not long ago left behind. He wavers between support of his sister and of his parents, himself having almost no memory of that brother who disappeared when Trip was only five. He increasingly is physically jumpy and uncomfortable with what he is reading in his sister's manuscript and the implications of guilt laid on his parents. Finally, he also echoes his mother in saying to Brooke, "Because you had a breakdown, you believe you have a free pass here."
And while none of these five excellent ensemble members clearly rises above the rest in performance, Mr. Okuniewicz does get the privilege and does great honor to the play's most telling lines and climactic moment. With spellbinding intensity and a desperate look of final resignation and disgust, he makes an exit from the family reunion, declaring, "... stop fighting like weasels in a pit, because on your last day on this planet, you'll be scared and it won't matter as you take your last breathall what will have mattered is how you loved."
The real point of this powerful script is brought to exciting, moving life by this fine cast under incredible direction. All are supported by Ron Gasparinetti's impressive, desert home setting looking out on the dark, San Jacinto mountains through a glass walla home detailed in scores of ways by the intriguing properties designed by Miranda Whipple. Amy Zsadanyl-Yale's dressing of the actors on summer-like holiday in December, George Psarras's choice of music to represent the various generations present, and Nick Kumamoto's lighting effects to give desert atmosphere all do their parts in ensuring that this is a first-class production.
The family unit is the basis of Other Desert Cities, and the ensemble assembled in this City Lights Theater Company production never let us forget how tightly bound and tenuously suspect the ties of families really are.
Other Desert Cities continues through October 23, 2016, at at 529 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at www.cltc.org.