Family relationships are generally difficult to navigate, but exacerbating factors such as alcohol and drug abuse, political differences and long-kept secrets can brew toxic confrontations.
That’s the scenario for Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 Broadway hit, “Other Desert Cities,” a cautionary tale about love, loyalty and truth telling. Theatre Raleigh’s production should leave few viewers unaffected.
It’s Christmas 2004 at the Wyeths in Palm Springs. Lyman and Polly, both politically conservative, welcome their liberal daughter Brooke, visiting from the East Coast.
She’s brought the manuscript of her latest book, hoping for her parents’ approval because it centers on her older brother’s suicide. A 1970s radical and bombing suspect, her brother had been an embarrassment for her parents, damaging their standing with the conservative power base.
Lyman and Polly beg her not to reopen old wounds, while Silda, Polly’s alcoholic, left-leaning sister, urges Brooke to stand firm and expose the couple’s choice of party loyalty over helping their son. Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, attempts peacemaking without success.
Baitz explores many recognizable generational clashes. Despite attempts to lighten proceedings with zingy one-liners early on and some dialog more editorial than natural, the play is engaging because it doesn’t take sides, especially after a last-minute revelation changes everything.
Director Jesse Gephart paces his cast confidently, drawing out distinctive characterizations on Chris Bernier’s sleekly stylish living room set.
Most appealing are Charlie Brady’s laid-back, practical Trip, in some ways the most mature of them all, and Pamela Dunlap’s brash Silda, her gruff rehabbed personality hiding a loving soul underneath.
Wednesday’s opening found the others still settling into their roles.
Mark Phialas projected Lyman’s calm, genial outside well but needed more believable emotion in angry outbursts. Maggie Rasnick’s Polly had caustic venom and dripping sarcasm for the big moments but was too meekly reserved at other times. Dana Marks gave Brooke an understandable flippancy to cover Brooke’s nervous apprehension but she rarely revealed the vulnerability and hurt underneath.
A major liability Wednesday was the tendency by Phialas, Marks and especially Rasnick to speak too quietly and casually, causing key lines to be missed and nearly scuttling the climactic reveal. If that problem can be solved, along with some further character development, the production should grow from good to great.