Woe to the family who gathers at the holidays. In “Other Desert Cities,” a Pulitzer-nominated play by Jon Robin Baitz staged at Mad Horse Theatre Company through May 17, that woe is spiked with animosities, sweetened by love, and mixed with secrets.
The Wyeth family is gathering at what is now the homestead in Palm Springs, a refuge for Polly (Grace Bauer) and Lyman Wyeth (Christopher Horton), politically active Republicans still sold on the family-values America that helped cement their affection for and friendship with the likes of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan. Lyman is a Western-hero actor turned politician (a California desert species if there ever was one) and Polly a Hollywood writer. But their time has passed, and not just because of the Clinton-spawned new Democrats or the tragedy of 9/11.
There’s a more personal tragedy, the loss of a child, that has sent them to establish their stylishly modern outpost, one that their suffering daughter, Brooke (Janice Gardner) a one-hit wonder novelist who’s found more warmth on Long Island, has plumbed for her new book.
That book, long in coming after a devastating depression, is a memoir, and it emerges as a threat to the family’s manufactured peace. At first the play, which is thick with the kind of bitter-pill humor that family members often mete out, seems to grapple with the truths that Brooke’s memoir threatens to reveal. But things get interesting as the ping-pong begins, a chaotic competition about what exactly the truth is.
Mad Horse’s “Other Desert Cities” is a believable visit to the dry heat of Southern California and the close environment of this particular family. The cast manages the task the script demands of them, providing a lot of back story through dialogue, something that could bog things down if it weren’t delivered so naturally and credibly. Bauer’s Polly is a force; she manages to bring even the Reagans to life again despite their fictional roles deep in the background.
Brooke’s younger brother Trip (Brent Askari), something of a family peacemaker, is especially enjoyable to watch. Askari’s voice is like a rasping violin, resonating various notes, his timing a boon to Baitz’s many humorous lines. When Trip is wounded and speaks his own truth, it’s especially moving. “Nobody who takes pleasure as seriously as I do could possibly be happy,” Trip says. “Don’t you know that?”
And Maureen Butler as Silda, Polly’s sister and sometime writing collaborator and a barely recovering alcoholic, is a mighty meddler, an anti-Polly. She cleaves to her liberal politics and her Jewishness. When Butler spits and sputters out her own truths she cannot be ignored. But should she?
The groovy sunny yellow set puts you in Palm Springs, although the theater’s black box works against it somewhat. It can be difficult to see all the actors, and that can feel like the audience is missing an important expression of these characters’ deeply felt emotions.
There’s one character that no one ever sees, older brother Henry, who looms large in this family and in this play, and who yet may be the only one who understands the truths that everyone wants to understand — or forget.
WHAT: “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Nick Schroeder
WHERE: Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland
REVIEWED: 7:30 p.m. May 2; show runs through May 17