Monday, February 17, 2014

OTHER DESERT CITIES Opens Thursday at Heartland

When Other Desert Cities opens at Heartland Theatre this week, it will not be the first Jon Robin Baitz play to grace that stage. It won't even be the second. As a matter of fact, Other Desert Cities completes a Baitz hat trick for Heartland.

Like Three Hotels and A Fair Country before it, Other Desert Cities is about family and the responsibility we owe to the people we're related to. Should a person do what's best for him (or her) if that isn't what's best for the family as a whole? Should blood trump one's own judgment, values and needs?

Baitz was born in the United States, but his father, a high-level exec at Carnation, the big evaporated milk/instant breakfast company, took his family to exotic places like Brazil and South Africa when Carnation sent him there. Jon Robin, also called Robbie, returned to the US for high school at Beverly Hills High School, but his time abroad certainly informed his later work as a playwright.  

Three Hotels involves a man very much like Baitz's father, a businessman whose company sells baby formula, but a formula that has resulted in illness and death for children in third-world countries. The three hotels in the title show the man, his wife, and then him again, in different places around the world, as they muse on the distance in their marriage, the compromises they've made, and the corrupting influences of ambition and money.

A Fair Country expands on those issues, looking at the family of a diplomat stationed in South Africa and charged with bringing American "culture" -- like a production of "Idiot's Delight" put on by convicts -- to people living under Apartheid. He is desperate to get out of there and bring his family to a better posting in Europe, but his wife is falling apart before his eyes, and his sons -- one an intensely political counterculture journalist and the other a vulnerable, Quixotic type who hopes to save his mother -- have major issues with the way the family operates.

You can see those same political conflicts in Other Desert Cities, with once again a family in crisis. In this one, the mother, Polly, played for Heartland by Connie de Veer,  is tougher and sharper, more of a verbal warrior, and the father, Lyman Wyatt, played by Joe Penrod, is sweeter and more kind, an actor who had a decent career in Western movies before he took a political turn and became an ambassador under his friend Ronald Reagan. But they are still conservative and traditional, on the other side of a huge political divide from their oldest son, a golden boy who took a radical, self-destructive turn as a teen, and from their daughter, a talented writer who had a mental breakdown but has now tried to write her way into understanding what happened between her parents and her brother. And then there's Trip, the youngest Wyatt, a TV producer who does his best not to get involved in the family warfare.

When daughter Brooke, played by Jessie Swiech, comes home with the memoir she's written, one that exposes all sorts of things the Wyatt parents do not want to discuss, things get dicey very quickly. Aunt Silda, played by Carol Scott, sees herself as a free-spirited knight in shining armor, and she is firmly on Brooke's side, even though Silda is living on the generosity of her sister Polly. Trip, played by Joey Banks, has always kept his head low and stayed out of trouble. But this time, lines are being drawn in the desert sand. Nobody is willing to back down, not fierce, vicious Polly, loopy Silda, well-meaning Lyman, not even Brooke, who seems so fragile.

The issues are really very interesting as Baitz unspools them in his play. Is Brooke's first responsibility to herself and to the memory of her beloved brother? Or should it be to her parents, who live in a privileged world that they are loathe to lose, one that will be shaken to its core with the revelations in Brooke's book?

You'll have to watch Other Desert Cities to make up your own mind, but Baitz is careful to give both sides their due. Other Desert Cities was nominated for five Tony Awards and was chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, winning a Tony and a Drama Desk for Judith Light, who played eccentric Aunt Silda in the Broadway production.

Sandra Zielinski directs the Heartland Theatre production, which opens February 20 with a 7:30 pm "Pay What You Can" preview performance. Performances continue through Sunday, March 9, and there will be a panel discussion of those same issues -- the right to be heard, to own one's memories vs. family peace and compromise -- following the matinee on Sunday, March 2.

For all the details, visit Heartland's Show Times or Reservations pages, or check out the Now Playing page.

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