‘Other Desert Cities’ by Peace Mountain Theatre challenges and shocks

An excellent cast and direction bring a gut-punching evening of theater to life.

Peace Mountain Theatre’s Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz, features outstanding, in-the-moment performances. Director Julie Janson directs a show that touches on themes ranging from family discord, generational conflict, and anti-war vs pro-war dissent. In a play about confronting the past, these characters are real.

Nancy Blum, Emily Gilson, and Ted Culler in ‘Other Desert Cities.’ Photo by Ira Levine.

Other Desert Cities – the title refers to a California road sign – takes place on December 24, 2004, in Palm Springs, California (at the height of the Iraq War) in the Wyeth home. Familial tension is like boiling water under the Yuletide season. Lyman Wyeth, the patriarch, is an ex-movie actor, ex-ambassador, and local GOP chair, and his uppity wife, Polly, is a retired screenwriter. Lyman and Polly spend their time socializing with prominent Republicans. 

Lyman and Polly’s liberal daughter Brooke is a novelist, depressed, and divorced, visiting for Christmas from back east. Brooke’s brother Trip produces a reality TV court show entitled Jury of Your Peers. Polly’s sister Silda is a recovering alcoholic living with the family – she and Polly used to write frivolous comedy films.

The Wyeths’ deceased son Henry, Brooke’s older brother, causes the rift central to Other Desert Cities. Henry, an anti-war protester, had bombed a military recruiting office, causing a fatality, and then drowned himself by jumping off a Seattle-area ferry. Familial fireworks ignite when Brooke declares she’ll publish a tell-all memoir about Henry’s family life and his dubious demise. 

David Dieudonne plays Trip as an exasperated voice of reason, who simply wants to enjoy some family time during the Holidays. Recently seen as Duvid in Peace Mountain’s A Shayna Maidel, Dieudonne gives a stellar performance in which he is in the moment throughout, every gesture and gaze perfectly on time.

Ted Culler makes Lyman a reserved, repressed, but loving father. Culler’s monologues are amazing. At points, in response to Brooke, his eyes bulge and his lips tremble – he lives his part. Culler observes: “A lot of people go through their lives pretending.”

Emily Gilson and Susan Holliday in ‘Other Desert Cities.’ Photo by Ira Levine.

Nancy Blum’s Polly is a patrician GOP housewife, who doesn’t like “Arabs and crazed Indian people” and wonders “When did people start getting sensitive about every damn thing?” Blum has several emotionally powerful scenes with Emily Gilson, who plays Brooke.

Gilson is best when her character Brooke reminisces about Henry. She has a great interplay with Susan Holliday’s Silda, who plays the weariness of a person who has lost too many bouts with the bottle. Holliday does a fantastic job listening and reacting when her castmates are talking. Between Texas-raised sisters Silda and Polly, Silda is most in touch with her Jewish identity. She tells Polly: “You didn’t just lose your accent, you had to be goy too.”   

David Levin’s set suggests wealth and elegance, as does Charlene Sloan’s set dressing.  Stephenie Yee provides the cast with pastel and light-colored wardrobe pieces that suggest California. James Robertson provides good lighting design, though the house is never completely in the dark, which takes some getting used too. Dramaturg Nancy Eynon Lark contributes to the impressive lobby-display of the play’s background. Playwright Baitz created the ABC-TV drama Brothers & Sisters and was a 1996 Pulitzer Prize finalist. 

Other Desert Cities works on two levels: family drama and political tension. Janson has directed one of the most intensely acted shows of the season—buy a ticket soon.

Note: After the close of Other Desert Cities, Peace Mountain Theatre will move to The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD, and will present its spring production, Driving Miss Daisy.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Other Desert Cities plays through December 15, 2019, at Peace Mountain Theatre Company performing at Congregation Har Shalom, 11510 Falls Road, in Potomac, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.


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