Acting or reality; the two are hardly mutually exclusive. We live with each other’s divergent truths because we know no other way to live. Our lives could be complete lies that we have no idea we are living because we blindly accept what we see and experience to be truth without question. Silver Spring Stage presents Jon Robin Baitz’s riveting drama Other Desert Cities. Directed by Bridget Muehlberger, this emotionally enthralling production will draw forth a tumultuous downpour of heartfelt pathos as old wounds are scratched afresh when a depressive writer returns to her parents’ home for the holidays, hot to trot out the ambiguous details of a black spot in the family’s history. A truly remarkable and compelling story unfolding in the arms of talented performers; this is one for the books.
Set Designer Andrew S. Greenleaf encapsulates simplistic but sophisticated in his design work of the Wyeth home in Palm Springs. The elegant furnishings are modern but refined; exuding the air of old money in a trendier time. Greenleaf’s color scheme reflects the banal dry life of ‘the desert’ as well as symbolically representing the ordinary lifestyle that the Wyeth’s are trying to lead. The working bamboo fountain out on the veranda is the perfect touch to complete the look of aristocracy in the sands.
Director Bridget Muehlberger has gathered an exceptionally talented cast to work through the density of this captivating drama where there is little break in the continuous crash of emotional waves upon the characters. While the first act feels sluggish in places, mostly when lines of dialogue do not come immediately one atop the next in the more minor snipes and outbursts between characters, by the second act the pacing has peaked to perfection and rolls along with a swift and exacting energy through to the play’s conclusion.
It is apparent from the opening scene of the play that the family dynamic is skewed. Tensions bubble ripe very close to the surface even in the most basic of exchanges between parents and daughter. The cast on the whole handles the build in these moments of tension with authenticity, never pushing a moment to higher stakes in a way that feels contrived. The individual relationships of the characters are maintained in a similar fashion, everything feeling sourced from an honest and open place.
The drama is not without its comic levity, coming largely from the last character to be introduced, Silda (Malinda K. Smith). Playing the sassy, struggling aunt figure, in relation to protagonist Brooke, Smith delivers the character with well-timed humorous injections to keep the play from being a downward spiral into gloom, doom, and depression. Her banter with Polly (Jane Squier Bruns) takes on a much heavier hand than the rest of her dialogue, creating an intriguing but well received dichotomy in her performance.
Bruns, as the perpetual antagonist in the production, gives a near perfect recitation of her dialogue and holds her own in verbal spars both against her character’s wayward sister and emotionally unstable daughter. While Bruns’ own emotional stability oscillates from calm and collected with sharp wit and clinging to a thread of her darker secrets, there are at times moments when Bruns could have pushed her expressions further, ultimately raising the stakes of the performance. Her more dramatic moments of emotional purging hit an invisible ceiling and never go higher than a certain point. Bruns does deliver a stunning performance toward the end of the show’s climax in the final build-up scenes.
Lyman (Bill Hurlbut) provides a mollifying presence to both Polly and Brooke. Hurlbut works a gradual path from complacent and understanding to emotionally outraged and undone; the slow steady build-up layering into his character’s performance until the show reaches its conclusion. The relationship and bond that shows so readily between Hurlbut and Brooke (Andrea Spitz) is the most earnest in the production, even once their differences compound the nature of its existence.
Spitz, as the main protagonist, gives a stellar performance when it comes to her emotional breakdowns. Her sarcasm is razor sharp, designed to sting upon delivery and her vocal command allows for expressive emotions without depending on raising and lowering the volume of her voice. At times her constant state of being on the verge of tears seemed a bit much, giving her final big breakdown less of an emotional impact, but her commitment to the state of emotional limbo was strong and persistent.
Trip (Henry LaGue) at first feels superfluous to the play as a whole but is quickly realized as a vital and integral character. LaGue does an exceptional job of living up to the character’s namesake in the second act with his ‘altered-state’ delivery speech. But it’s his final monologue that really grips the audiences’ heartstrings and tugs hard. LaGue’s finest moments aren’t even wrapped up in anything he says but in his silent responses during the final moments of the play, both at its natural ending and in the epilogue scene. He is expressing his emotions as loud as those speaking through his silent facial reactions to everything that is being revealed; a truly stunning moment to watch.
The show will move you; uncovering secrets that we can all relate to when it comes to family and love within that family, even if things are not always as they seem.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Other Desert Cities plays through April 27, 2014 at Silver Spring Stage— 10145 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 593- 6036, or purchased them online.
Family Flashpoint: ‘Other Desert Cities’ Opens at Silver Spring Stage on April 4th by Lennie Magida.