Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” belongs to that particular breed of domestic drama that traps us in a room with characters who are all at emotional and ideological odds and watches as they slowly destroy one another. It’s also a perceptive and painful portrait of familial dysfunction, tightly wound and intense, and it’s brilliantly and compassionately acted by the five-person cast at the Modern Theater Spokane.
The show, directed by Dawn Taylor Reinhardt, concerns the wealthy Wyeth family, who are spending Christmas together in the Palm Springs McMansion of patriarch Lyman (Wes Dietrick) and his shrewd wife Polly (Diana Trotter).
Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth spend their days at their genteel country club, rubbing elbows with the conservative elite and carrying themselves like the second coming of the Reagans (whom they refer to affectionately as Ron and Nancy). Lyman was once a sought-after actor in westerns and war pictures; Polly co-wrote a long-forgotten series of MGM musicals with her sister Silda (Marianne McLaughlin), who’s staying with them after a stint in rehab.
Also home for the holidays are Lyman and Polly’s kids — reality TV producer Trip (Billy Hultquist) and novelist Brooke (Sarah Miller), who hasn’t seen her parents since moving to New York six years ago. The tension is palpable from the get-go, but seemingly innocent squabbles over politics — the show is set during the second Bush administration — soon transform into intense confrontations about the family’s checkered past.
The elephant in the room is the absence of another Wyeth son named Henry, an anti-establishment revolutionary who committed suicide after his involvement in the fatal bombing of a military recruitment center. Lyman and Polly barely acknowledge that Henry ever existed, but they’re shaken from oblivion when Brooke announces that her upcoming book is a memoir that deals extensively with the fallout surrounding Henry’s crime.
What’s fascinating about “Other Desert Cities” is how it explores and considers each character’s reaction to Brooke’s revelation. Lyman supports his daughter but refuses to read the manuscript. Trip tries to be diplomatic, though he admits Brooke’s version of the truth doesn’t quite line up with his own. Polly, on the other hand, considers it an affront. She sees the book as a serious breach of trust and a hazard to the family’s integrity, and she’s set to disown Brooke if she goes through with her publishing deal.
The first half of Baitz’s script is perhaps a bit overworked. Some of the dialogue feels clumsily expository, and there are exchanges that feel less like real conversation and more like characters dutifully filling us in on plot details. But the second half is pretty sensational, as old wounds are exposed and a carefully scrubbed facade is rubbed raw. There’s a drastic shift in tenor during the show’s final half hour, and it puts the Wyeths through the emotional ringer.
Reinhardt has a way with actors, and she gets tremendous performances out of this small but accomplished cast. It would be easy to turn these characters into cartoon sketches, but the acting here is rich and layered: There are no heroes or villains in Baitz’s fussily furnished and hermetically sealed world, but there are deeply flawed people who are trying desperately to do the right thing. It’s thrilling to watch this ensemble navigate the play’s tricky moral waters, especially when they’re all onstage together.
“Other Desert Cities” begins as an acidic and occasionally witty study of generational divide, but it slowly and inevitably develops into a stinging howl of pain and regret. It’s not an easy viewing experience, but it’s an immensely rewarding and undeniably moving one.