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Arts and Entertainment

Family secrets

‘Other Desert Cities’ captures tension, insults

“All I’m saying, Brooke, is that I don’t know how the hell you stand those East Coast winters.”

The opening line in Jon Robin Baitz’s spellbinding play “Other Desert Cities” is tossed into the air as easily as a tennis ball. The Wyeth family of Palm Springs, California, has just played doubles, and they’re coming in for breakfast. It’s early morning on Christmas Eve.

The parental comment appears to be casual, but it carries a veiled criticism. Every adult child returning home for the holidays knows the script.

Baitz is the author of urbane American plays, mostly about families. He has an ear for generational conflict, shifting social mores and the high cost of telling the truth. Every family has secrets, Baitz believes, and the Wyeth family is no exception.

“Cities” opened Friday to a mesmerized full house at Durango Arts Center. It runs evenings next weekend, Thursday through Saturday, with a Sunday afternoon matinee.

Mounted in collaboration with Merely Players, the production is stunning to look at, extraordinarily well cast and profoundly thought-provoking.

Set in 2004, the obviously successful Wyeths are a Hollywood family that has moved to another desert city, Palm Springs, after the suicide of the eldest son, Henry.

Polly Wyeth, mother of the clan, is quick and caustic, a retired screenwriter who is sharply and intelligently defined by actor Maureen May. Lyman, the patriarch, is a retired movie-star-cum-politician, portrayed by the excellent Gordon Thomas as an elegant, old-school actor and gentleman.

Theresa Carson, director of the DAC Theatre Program, portrays Brooke, the adult middle child, with a brilliant, nuanced mix of love, loyalty, yearning and a hard-as-desert-glass resolve to publish a tell-all memoir.

The enormously versatile regional actor Geoff Johnson plays younger brother Trip, who has found a lucrative path in commercial television. He functions as mediator and truth-teller in this complicated family saga.

Finally, the slightly off-center and alcoholic Aunt Silda (Kim Welty, in the best work she’s done in Durango) delivers sibling rivalry in the older generation and complicity with the younger.

The absent eldest child of the tribe, Henry, was a promising young man until drugs and ideology spun him away from expectations. Each family member deals with his death differently.

You can learn a lot about the family, the period and the social class by just looking at the set before Polly delivers that first line. Pitched perfectly with its stone fireplace, low-slung modern furniture and contemporary art on the walls, the Wyeth’s prairie-style home speaks quietly of California success.

Even from the audience, you can identify photographs of Frank Sinatra, John Wayne and Barry Goldwater. From dialogue, you learn about photos and a key connection to Ron and Nancy Reagan. The lone picture of Henry also has a story to tell. So does the fake Christmas tree, with its generic ornaments and phony snow.

Credit Charles Ford for the set and technical design in general. Credit director Mona Wood-Patterson for shaping a remarkably prescient drama that reveals so much about the America we live in.

“Other Desert Cities” dramatically captures the ebb and flow of family tensions, old insults that threaten to split the clan apart and secrets that imprison – or perhaps liberate.

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.

If you go

“Other Desert Cities,” by Jon Robin Baitz, Durango Arts Center in collaboration with Merely Players, directed by Mona Wood-Patterson with set and lighting design by Charles Ford, through Feb. 28, 802 East Second Avenue. Tickets are $22 adults, $19 DAC members $19. For more information, call 259-2606, ext. 13 or visit www.durangoarts.org.

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