Family Conflicts at Heart of SCT Play "Other Desert Cities"

Mar 17, 2017

Jon Robin Baitz's acclaimed play "Other Desert Cities" opens tonight at SCT Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza.
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Contemporary Theatre)

Springfield Contemporary Theatre opens their production of Jon Robin Baitz's award-winning play "Other Desert Cities" tonight (Friday March 17) and running through April 2nd at Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza.

In beginning the interview that aired this morning on KSMU's "Arts News," I allude to "backstage in the entertainment industry" as being at the center of this play.  Director Dr. Robert Bradley qualifies that description somewhat.  Bradley describes Lyman Wyeth, the family patriarch in the story, as a longtime Hollywood B-movie actor.  He and his screenwriter wife Polly were friends with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and "throughout the play we keep getting Ronnie and Nancy's names dropped from time to time. So I suppose one could call it 'backstage', both in the movie industry but also politics."

Politics aside, nearly everyone in the family is or has been in the entertainment industry, either film or TV.  All, that is, except daughter Brooke, who is a novelist and lives on the East Coast rather than Palm Springs, California, where the rest of the family resides.

Art Duncan plays Lyman Wyeth.  He says, "There are many parallels between the Wyeth family and the Reagans, or other California Republican families of that time. They were dealing with a lot of political issues, a lot of entertainment issues, a lot of issues having to do with how one presents the family to the general public.  And that is where we all meet when Brooke comes to visit Palm Springs."  It's the Christmas holiday, and Brooke, who has suffered from depression and a nervous breakdown, hasn't been back home in six years.  The family also includes matriarch Polly's sister Silda, a former film and TV writer and recovering alcoholic; and Brooke's brother Trip, a reality-TV show producer.  "This is your typical dysfunctional 'fun' Christmas," quips Art Duncan.

What makes it even more dysfunctional than it might otherwise be is that Brooke reveals that she is writing a memoir about the family--which doesn't sit at all well with the rest of them.  Says Art Duncan, "And that's where you see the response: how do we approach this, respond to this, given who we are and given who we have  become over these several decades?  And that is where things sort of start spinning out of control--but in a very disciplined way."

Brooke's memoir will center on a pivotal--and scandalous--event in Wyeth family history that no one else wants to rehash or remember, according to director Robert Bradley, even though it was certainly a matter of public record at the time. "The oldest son (Henry--now deceased) was a member of a 1970s anti-war group.  There was a fire, to which the son really had very little connection other than the fact that his group was a part of it.   And in the fire, an individual, unbeknownst, was in the building and was killed.  But it's been mostly forgotten through the years. It's a wound the family does not want re-opened. But it begins to raise a number of really interesting questions: when you have family 'secrets,' who owns those secrets? And what happens if one member of the family discloses one of those 'secrets'--or brings them back up again--what happens within the family unit?  Whom do you trust? And that's pretty much what this play gets into.  It starts out very funny, because they're an entertaining group of people. But gradually things begin to disintegrate."  Since Henry is now dead the feeling seems to be, "Look, he's dead--let's don't go back again!"

What is also interesting, says actor Art Duncan, is that while the mother and father of the family are "California Republican status-holders," the rest of the family are decidedly more liberal. Polly's sister Silda is "very left-wing; we have Brooke, who has her leftist politics brought into the family; we have Trip who is, I would say, leftist as well--but he's not so political as much as he just wants to be entertaining. So yeah, there's a lot of conflict between the left and the right, a lot of references to Reagan- and Bush-era events."

Both Duncan and Bradley are quick to note that it's a very well-written play.  "In fact," says Dr. Bradley, "it's a beautifully-written play in terms of its use of language.  Jon Robin Baitz is a master of the English language and of vocabulary. In fact, when I saw the original production back about 2010 or so, one of the things which I remarked on was that we had suddenly returned to a highly literate-sounding play and playwright!  And then through the study which I made of (the play) more recently, I became aware of what a master of language Baitz is, and how wonderful it is to read it--and to hear it."

Bradley says he has also been "fascinated" during the rehearsal process by the fact that "there are five cast members in the production.  Of the five, Art (Duncan) is the only one I have worked with before!  And it's been wonderful.  I have loved working with them."

Jennifer Buttell, an Actors Equity member, plays Polly Wyeth, Lyman's wife and the family matriarch.  She is new to the area, having come to Branson with her husband from the West Coast only a few months ago. Jennifer Lale is Brooke; she has worked for Springfield Contemporary Theatre before, but this is her first on-stage role. She is a staff member in the Missouri State University English Department.  Cindy Lear, one of the co-founders of Associates in Sign Language, plays Silda.  This is her second SCT production--she first appeared in "Tribes." Nate Schaefer is Trip, and is making his SCT debut.  And, adds, Dr. Bradley, "you can come see Art (Duncan) giving the performance of his life: he's playing a Republican, and for him, that's a real crossover!" "It's acting," adds Duncan, laughing.

"Other Desert Cities" contains adult language and content.  After opening Friday March 17, the production will run Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through April 2nd.   Tickets range from $10-$25; call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.