Other Desert Cities might seem to be a play all about conflict – but director Julianne Christie says it’s really all about love.
Jon Robin Baitz’ dramatic, yet often darkly comedic, Broadway hit tells the story of a family who are deeply divided by political beliefs and a shared history of tragedy, but still share bonds of love.
The latest offering of White Rock Players Club – produced by Dianna Harvey – Other Desert Cities runs until April 23 at the White Rock Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.
Set in Palm Springs in 2004, during the Iraq War, it shows what happens when liberal writer Brooke Wyeth returns home to visit her family during Christmas.
Her father Lyman Wyeth (a cowboy actor who later served as a U.S. ambassador) and her perfectionist mother Polly are staunch Republicans – part of the Ronald and Nancy Reagan circle. Her brother Trip is a Hollywood producer of ‘reality TV’ and her aunt Silda Graumann is an alcoholic prone to highly erratic behaviour.
Brooke, herself, is coming home after six years away – some of which she spent in a mental hospital, trying to come to terms with the past.
And she has a bombshell to reveal to her parents – she has written a tell-all memoir guaranteed to open bitter wounds about the circumstances of the death of her beloved older brother Henry.
“That’s the thing about emotional luggage – you always end up taking it home with you,” Christie told Peace Arch News.
The battle lines would seem to be painted in black and white, but nothing in this empathetic family portrait is as simple and cut-and-dried as it might seem on the surface.
And while the backstory sets the stage for inevitable conflict – it also raises the possibility of catharsis, Christie said.
“What brought me to (the play) was love,” she said.
“These five people love each other more than than anything in the world, and politics can’t touch that.”
The play, she said, deals with the idea that we can find our way to “our authentic self and telling the truth,” while still being able to hang on to love for others with whom we may disagree.
Which might make it the perfect play for this time in history, Christie said.
“We’ve all been dealing with that in the Trump-era, and through the pandemic,” she said. “There’s been a lot of un-friending going on, a lot of division in families.”
Also reflective of the current era is Other Desert Cities’ casting policy – Christie has assembled two complete casts for the play.
She explained that, after some two years of limited access to the stage, due to COVID-19 shutdowns, the measure allows all the actors more chance to perform – as well as a greater chance to continue, in the worst-case scenario, should some of actors have been forced to quarantine.
“It’s a show full of beautiful speeches and monologues and someone can’t step in at the last moment and take that on,” she observed.
But the other advantage that has emerged from the decision, she said, is that she has been able to mix and match actors during the rehearsal process and will continue with this as necessary during the run – adding another layer to the multi-dimensionality of Baitz’ portrait of the Wyeth family.
Various performances will see either Meredith Graham or Beth Cantor as Brooke, Robbie Burns or Andy Wood as patriarch Lyman Wyeth, Cindy Peterson or Lori Tych as matriarch Polly, Dann Wilhelm or Harrison MacDonald as Trip, and Heather Christie and Tych as Silda.
For Christie – also a highly experienced film and television actor – whose White Rock stage directing credits have been agreeably lively productions of the farces Don’t Dress For Dinner and The Comedy of Tenors, Other Desert Cities also represents a change of pace.
“I’ve been known for comedy and farce, and this is my first chance to do a big family drama,” she said.
Throwing herself into the production has also cushioned the blow of losing the opportunity of a major series role as a result of a COVID-19 situation, she noted.
“That was a really tough one,” she said.
“But I always have to take the position that everything happens for a reason.”
She added that she is delighted to be working on this show with an ace production team including assistant director Adrian Shaffer, stage manager Charles Buettner, and set designer Robin Maggs, whose Palm Springs home setting promises to be spectacular.
Lighting director Richard Smith and projection specialist Demetrios Georgeadis, whose work she admired in the recent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, will ensure that the Wyeths’ window view of the desert also offers an insight into the cultural background of the times.
“I wanted to use beautiful lights and music and projection work – anything we could to heighten the moods of the play,” she said.
For tickets ($15, all seats, Wednesday to Thursday, $28 Friday through Sunday, $24 for students and seniors), and other information, visit whiterockplayers.ca, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-536-7535.