Theater Review: Family more powerful than politics
By Jim Lowe
Staff Writer | February 02,2014
Photo by Lindsay Raymondjack
Bill Carmichael is Lyman and Eva Gil is Brooke, who has just dropped a bombshell on the family, in Vermont Stage’s production of “Other Desert Cities.”
“Other Desert Cities” opens like a sophisticated comedy, with a California couple, Hollywood veterans and now stalwarts of the state’s GOP, at Christmastime. But it’s not long before it descends into the darkness and tragedy of family secrets.
Vermont Stage Company opened a hard-hitting yet most entertaining production of Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 Broadway play that underscores the power of family.
It’s Christmas Eve day in 2004 in Palm Springs, and Polly and Lyman Wyeth are hosting their two children and Polly’s sister for the holidays. Lyman is a one-time movie gunslinger who moved into politics. Polly wrote screenplays with her sister for a once-successful “Gidget”-like series, but has become part of her husband’s political team.
Sister Silda is a not-so-recovering alcoholic just off her last binge. And son Trip produces a successful network courtroom sitcom.
It’s daughter Brooke, a writer who recently recovered from a nervous breakdown, who wreaks havoc on the family celebration. She has brought her latest for family perusal before publication. They thought it was going to be a novel, but she reveals that it’s a memoir about her older brother Henry, part of the radical underground, whose life ended in suicide.
This revelation brings up a time the ultra-respectable Wyeths — they are, after all, good friends of Ronnie and Nancy — don’t want rehashed. But there is a much deeper reason, one that sends the entire family reeling.
Directed by Mark Alan Gordon, the Vermont Stage production at the Flynn Center’s FlynnSpace in Burlington proved polished and powerful as well as most entertaining. This was due to expert staging and a particularly fine cast.
Bill Carmichael and Karen Lefkoe, both Vermont actors, not only felt authentic as privileged Republican sophisticates, with their inherent prejudices, they imbued them with unexpected dimension.
Both are best known for comedy, Carmichael for his work on Broadway and St. Michael’s Playhouse, and Lefkoe for Vermont Stage’s “Shirley Valentine,” but Friday they both delivered powerfully dramatic and sometimes heart-wrenching performances.
Eva Gil was Brooke. The New York-based actress effectively brought the audience along with her as she was transformed from feisty, self-righteous and sure in her new self to adding the dimension of human knowledge.
Justin Quackenbush, a Vermont native now working out of New York, was the perfect foil for everyone as the even-keeled Trip. Another Vermonter, Dana Block, though she played to many lines for laughs, was convincing and sympathetic as the alcoholic Silda.
Occasionally too much action on the stage detracted from the dramatic power. But as a whole it was well-directed, fine ensemble acting.
The polish of the production was enhanced by the elegant set by Jeff Modereger, dramatically effective lighting by Jeffrey Salzberg, and appropriately attractive costumes by Cora Fauser.
“Other Desert Series” is among the most polished productions from Vermont Stage in recent years. It’s also among the most emotionally compelling.
Vermont Stage Company presents “Other Desert Cities,” by Jon Robin Baitz, Jan. 29-Feb. 16, at the Flynn Center’s FlynnSpace, 153 Main St. in Burlington. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays, plus a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, March 1. Tickets are $37.50, $32 for Wednesdays and matinees; call 863-5966, or go online to www.flynntix.org.