By Audrey Wells
Is it "simply good manners" to wait until parents have "gone" to publish memoirs that expose a family's terrible secrets? Lyman Wyeth, the patriarch in "Other Desert Cities," the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jon Robin Baitz that The Celebration Company opened this week at The Station Theatre, thinks so. He and his wife, Polly, are grand conservatives. Hollywood stars turned political actors, they were good friends of the Reagans and name-drop Ron and Nancy even to each other. They live in arid, moneyed Palm Springs, a fortress in their view against everything and everyone from snowy winters to methamphetamine addicts.
In the other corner of this family battle, stand their unhappy daughter Brooke and Polly's addled sister, Silda. Rebellious Brooke lives on the East Coast, rejecting her parents' California chauvinism. She has overcome her clinical depression and writer's block by producing a tell-all about an older brother's conflict with his parents over the Vietnam War and his subsequent suicide. The book is ready to go public.
Silda, recently released from rehab and living with her sister and brother-in-law, supports Brooke's plan to knock cold the family pride. Refereeing is Trip, Brooke's younger brother, a reality-television personality, a specialist in artifice, a perfect product of this family.
The Wyeths are show business people comfortable with performance. Their clever quips and snipes contain much of the glib humor in this otherwise serious drama.
Set on Christmas Eve in 2004, during the war in Iraq, family members hold up taunting proclamations about politics and each other as if they were baubles for the tree. The playwright hangs on the framework of this one family's problems and the unwieldy 50 years of political and social history of the United States.
Julia Hannaford Rundell's set design stretches horizontally and feels cool and spacious.
Steve Keen as Lyman and Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson as Polly move comfortably through the space and are believable as a long-married couple safe in their desert stronghold. They come across as a unit despite their very different personalities and inhabit their characters well. Keen balances Lyman as a father and as a husband. Polly is described as a bully, and she does have the best put-downs and pronouncements, but Kodes-Atkinson plays her with such confidence, she carries the show, and rather than living up to the accusations of meanness, or rigidity, it seems she deserves to be in command. Kate Riley portrays Brooke as rightly uncomfortable in her family. Although similarly strong-minded, she does not seem like her mother's daughter for much of the play. Brooke's conflict over whether or not to publish the family history comes to an interesting conclusion, and Riley transforms.
Joel Higgins as the equivocating Trip gives a lively and thoughtful performance. His character, who listens better than the other family members, suggests hope for a healthier future.
Joi Hoffsommer clearly enjoys her character Silda's off-beat qualities and her jabs at Polly. The sibling rivalry between Polly and Silda could be its own play.
Kay Bohannon Holley's direction skillfully moves the cast through the humor to the deeper heart of the play and uses silence as an effective counterpoint to the speeches, adding tension and depth.
If you go
What: Celebration Company presents "Other Desert Cities," written by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Kay Bohannon Holley, with Steve Keen, Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson, Joi Hoffsommer, Kate Riley and Joel Higgins.
When: 8 p.m. today through May 10.
Where: Station Theatre, 223 Broadway Ave., U.
Admission: $10 Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15 Fridays and Saturdays.
Reservations: 384-4000, or stationtheatre.com.
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.