Review: Other Desert Cities – Queensland Theatre Company at QPAC Playhouse

Image: Rebecca Davis, Robert Coleby, Janet Andrewartha

As much as I love the vivid experimentation – the sheer theatricalism – of some of the recent plays I’ve seen on Brisbane stages, I must confess to being a sucker for an unadorned production of a good piece of American realism. QTC’s latest offering is Jon Robin Baitz‘s Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony award-winner after its transfer from an off-Broadway start in 2011.

Mr Baitz’s play is finely wrought; the threads he spins in act one are woven tightly in act two and deliver some surprises of their own – a nice touch in a tale about family secrets and lies – a recurring motif in modern American drama. The coda at the play’s end is a little overly sentimental for my taste but probably essential given the narrative set up that’s gone before. The author creates his plot with great characters, by the way. The five roles are juicy, naturalistic and beg for bravura turns coupled with the finesse of ensemble playing.

Other Desert Cities is classically old-fashioned in so many ways; it even sticks to the unities for heaven’s sake!  In this co-production with Black Swan State Theatre Company and QTC, director Kate Cherry casts well and delivers a finely-observed, well-orchestrated, conservative production true to the play’s aesthetic values.

We’re in haute-bourgeois territory in this one. Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Robert Coleby and Janet Andrewartha) are impeccably-connected, old Republican blue-bloods – he a former movie star and Ambassador, she a former actor-screenwriter. It’s Christmas time 2004 and into their California desert mansion – an oasis complete with indoor pool, open fireplace, extensive library, and huge Christmas-tree, come two of their grown-up children: Brooke (Rebecca Davis) decidedly small ‘l’ liberal and a writer recovering from a break-down, and back home for the first time in 6 years. She’s a woman on a mission – spiky and highly-strung – seemingly lacking the good-natured humour and practicality of her younger brother Trip (Conrad Coleby), a laid-back television producer. The fifth in the ensemble is Polly’s sister Silda (Vivienne Garrett), a house-guest and recovering alcoholic; ‘her liver needs a liver’ as Polly notes dryly. The sisters’ relationship is combative and combustible to say the least.

We learn quickly that a third sibling, Henry, killed himself years before and left no note for Brooke with whom there was a deep, emotional connection. It’s the awful secret surrounding Henry that has tormented Brooke and been the impetus for her soon-to-be-published book – a memoir which she presents to the family on Christmas Eve. It will re-open old wounds, threaten to destroy the illusions they have created – their survival mechanisms – and tear apart any remaining familial ties.  The play revolves around the ways in which the family deal with Brooke’s revelations during that Christmas.

Whilst all good literary dramas – and Other Desert Cities is one of these – repay a close reading of the play script, the ensemble under Ms Cherry’s direction bring Mr Baitz’s work to life in a way that is quite thrilling. There’s no doubt that Polly Wyeth is the hub of this particular family. She’s also one of those complex, layered, nuanced characters – a great role, in fact – and a marvellous challenge for an actor up for it. Polly terrifies most people; she’s the woman who made Nancy Reagan cry!  By turns funny and grief-stricken, tough and vulnerable Polly is, despite all her casual bigotry and racism, impossible not to love or at least take to heart. Janet Andrewartha understands this and is superb in the role. Robert Coleby’s droll and gentle Lyman is a lovely foil to her strength and dominance; you understand the way this relationship has worked for so long. It’s a great stage pairing.

Rebecca Davis’ Brooke is possibly the least understood of the play’s characters – and she’s meant to be. Brooke’s lingering depression makes her company difficult to bear; was I the only one who wanted to smack her out of what appears to be self-obsession? It takes the genial Trip to bring some calm to her disorder, and it happens in a marvellously wrought, unexpected exchange with Brooke – one of the play’s surprises as character and plot revelation click and mesh. Mr Coleby (Jr) takes us on a journey with Trip that is as delightful as it is accomplished. Vivienne Garrett’s Silda is the trickster figure in the piece: witty, self-aware and the objective eye of the storm – or is she? It’s another ingenious performance from Ms Garrett and it’s good to see her back on the stage here in Queensland.

I tweeted after the show that the set for Other Desert Cities was one I’d like to live in. Well, on second thoughts … however, the architectural gorgeousness of the Wyeth’s Palm Springs home has been brilliantly captured by designer Christine Smith (last seen here with her Mother Courage design for QTC). Trent Suidgeest has lit the day and night of the Wyeth Christmas just as gorgeously as he did earlier with Managing Carmen, while Tony Brumpton‘s soundscape comments on the era and generational tension with popular song. It’s a good night in the theatre.

See Other Desert Cities. It plays at QPAC’s Playhouse until 1st September. Details on QTC’s or QPAC’s websites.