Brooke (Kate Turnbull, center) returns to Palm Springs to celebrate Christmas with her parents Lyman (James Sutorius, left) and Polly (Kandis Chappell, right) in TheatreWorks’ Regional Premiere of ‘Other Desert Cities.’
Family schisms and secrets are at the heart of “Other Desert Cities” a compelling modern drama by Jon Robin Baitz.
Presented by TheatreWorks, most of it takes place Christmas Eve 2004 at a home in Palm Springs. Brooke Wyeth (Kate Turnbull) and her younger brother, Trip (Rod Brogan), are joining their affluent parents, Polly (Kandis Chappell) and Lyman (James Sutorius), for the holiday.
Completing the family gathering is Polly’s sister, Silda Grauman (Julia Brothers), who is living with the elder Wyeths while continuing her rocky recovery from alcoholism.
Polly and Silda once co-wrote a popular movie series, while Lyman was a successful actor who became active in Republican politics. Trip produces a popular television game show in Los Angeles.
Brooke, a writer, lives on the East Coast and hasn’t been home in six years. During that time, her marriage dissolved and she went into a deep depression.
The gathering begins amiably, but the differences in politics quickly surface, with the elder Wyeths as staunch Republicans and the other three on the more liberal side.
Another sour note emerges as Brooke mentions her late older brother, Henry. Like many young people in the ’70s, he rebelled against his upbringing. He fell in with a radical group that bombed a military recruiting station and inadvertently killed a janitor. Remorseful over that event, Henry apparently committed suicide.
Brooke has just completed a book — a memoir, she calls it — about her family and Henry. It has been sold to a publisher and will be printed in The New Yorker in February. After reading the manuscript, her parents beg her not to allow its publication. They say it will cause immeasurable harm to themselves and the family.
Brooke’s conflicting loyalties to her family and to her belief in her book along with her desire for independence lead to painful, intense confrontations for all.
Although the play is fraught with emotional moments, Baitz leavens it with sharp humor, much of it coming from Trip and Silda. When Brothers exits after Silda’s first scene, for example, the audience applauds because Silda is so honest and down to earth.
Sutorius as Lyman and Brogan as Trip try to be the peacemakers as Brooke and Polly clash, but they get drawn into the fray, too.
Director Richard Seer skillfully guides the ensemble cast through shifting moods, helping to keep the audience enthralled.
The handsome, modern set by Alexander Dodge features a wide, tastefully decorated living room with an expansive view of bare, rugged mountains.
After its New York premiere in 2011, “Other Desert Cities” won several honors, including finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deserves such accolades because of it has sharply drawn characters and because it’s a riveting drama that speaks not only to family issues but also to American politics and the history of recent decades.
It will continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, through Sept. 15. For tickets and information call 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.