Jon Robin Baitz draws fault lines quickly in “Other Desert Cities,” his 2012 drama about a family on the verge of crumbling, but those lines keep shifting under our feet.
First we sympathize with Brooke (Josephine Hall), the daughter in her late 30s who comes home at Christmas with her soon-to-be-published memoir. It lambastes her right-wing, close-mouthed parents, Lyman and Polly (Jerry Colbert and Katherine Goforth), whom she blames for the suicide of a beloved elder brother. She’s officially seeking their approval but claims she doesn’t require it.
But as the characters move warily around each other, looking for positions of attack or defense, we realize the parents have a different story to tell – and, as upper-class WASPs focused on the kind of respectability that allows them to dine out with George Bush the elder and his cronies, have no intention of telling it. Circumstances force their hands, and then we reconsider our sympathies.
The title refers to circumstances in 2004, when most of the play takes place. Overseas, American troops are fighting two wars that have divided Brooke and her parents politically. At home, amid the hot sands of Palm Springs, Calif., these privileged people fight a war for another kind of freedom: the right to speak or conceal the truth as they see it. Brooke’s brother Trip (Ryan Stamey) and aunt Silda (Polly Adkins) look on, wishing peace would break out.
Baitz earned a Tony nomination for best play with “Cities.” In fact, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has now done three of the four nominees from that year: this one, David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” and the winner, Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park.” (The fourth, Rick Elice’s “Peter and the Starcatcher,” comes to town next week in the Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series.)
You can see why nominators took to “Cities”: It’s a meaty, Eugene O’Neill-style drama where characters tear at themselves and each other. Like O’Neill, it’s repetitive, full of passionate monologues and thunderous revelations. And every character has a crippling flaw: Fatal loyalty to the wrong ideals for the parents, alcoholism for the aunt, soul-numbing triviality for the brother. (He produces a “reality” show set in a courtroom with has-been celebrities as the jury.)
Baitz conceived Brooke more fully than the others: She’s judgmental, unforgiving, articulate, self-pitying, faithful to her understanding of family history and capable of love (if mainly toward a ghost). Hall, a newcomer to the Charlotte region, gives a richly varied performance as this fragile woman, who finally dissolves into a snarl of rage, tears and snot but keeps our sympathy. She plays especially well against Colbert, whose traditional restraint suits the character of the wealthy ex-ambassador until he, too, explodes in anger.
Director Dennis Delamar keeps the dialogue moving rapidly and sometimes overlapping slightly, as families tend to speak (especially when they’re not really hearing each other). The play needs and gets that kind of energy from all five actors: Goforth’s quiet cynicism is as intense as Adkins’ self-satisfied harangues.