The less you know about Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” walking in, the better. The play, which opens at the Modern Theater Spokane tonight, is an intimate character drama about splintered family dynamics and old wounds being reopened, and its story takes off in unexpected directions.
“It’s a beautifully crafted script, and it unfolds in a very heart-wrenching way,” said the show’s director, Dawn Taylor Reinhardt. “If people have not read it, then it will unfold exactly as it needs to unfold.”
The play centers on the Wyeth family, who are gathering for the Christmas holiday in the impeccably furnished Palm Springs home of Lyman (Wes Deitrick) and Polly Wyeth (Diana Trotter), wealthy conservatives who have retired from Hollywood.
Polly’s liberal sister Silda (Marianne McLaughlin), fresh out of rehab, is visiting, as is their youngest son Trip (Billy Hultquist), a TV producer. But it’s the arrival of their estranged daughter Brooke (Sarah Miller) that shakes things up, especially when she reveals she is going to publish a memoir that hinges on a tragic event from the Wyeths’ past.
That’s where Reinhardt said a basic plot synopsis should end, leaving audience members to discover the rest for themselves. She describes it as a story of endless nuance, one that opens itself up upon repeated viewings and becomes richer and more complex.
“Four days before we’re opening, we’re still discovering why it was written, why certain things were said,” Reinhardt said. “You may not catch it seeing it for the first time, but if you sit down and study the script, it’s very smart. … To tear a script apart and still be discovering things is brilliant.”
As with her last Modern production “Reasons to Be Happy,” Reinhardt is working with a small cast here, which she said has some advantages when it comes to really digging into what makes the characters tick.
“When you’re working with a smaller cast, you can give the actors more attention than if you’re dealing with 15 or 20 actors,” she said. “You get to know the individual actor and their individual strengths, really honing in and bringing out their best. They’re doing amazing, profound work.”
“Other Desert Cities” is the kind of material that attracts heavy hitters – its Broadway cast included Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing and Judith Light – but it’s also an emotionally draining piece, one that requires the actors to throw themselves into several dramatically taxing situations.
“I disagree with some of the things the parents say,” she said. “But if I approach it from a director’s perspective, I understand these characters and understand why they make some of the decisions that they make. How you feel about the characters at the beginning will likely be changed by the end of the play.”