It’s Christmas Eve at the luxurious Palm Springs home of Polly and Lyman Wyeth, and the whole family is gathered. Like most families, this one has its philosophical fault lines that can rupture at any moment. Mom and Dad are so staunchly conservative that Lyman was once chair of the GOP, and Polly picks up life lessons from personal friend Nancy Reagan. Polly’s sister, Silda, is still carrying the liberal torch lit during her Jewish upbringing, an origin Polly has conveniently forgotten. Left-wing daughter Brooke is a novelist pursuing art, while brother Trip is a TV producer pandering to America’s affection for brain-numbing entertainment.
These people beg for an observer to pigeonhole them, but playwright Jon Robin Baitz seems to dare us to peg his characters correctly. There is more to them than their affiliations or attributes, and he sets up rich contrasts between their actions and their words. In Vermont Stage Company’s nicely polished production of Other Desert Cities, the fine ensemble cast tells a witty, compassionate and surprising story of family relationships.
Brooke has picked up her life after a nervous breakdown by performing what she considers a therapeutic and artistically vital act: She’s written a family memoir centering on her late older brother’s youthful political rebellion, which spiraled into drug use and violent protest. In Brooke’s account, the parents are the bad guys; their emotional and political rigidity drove Henry to suicide, and she uses this family drama to illuminate America’s cultural pathology. The book is about to be published, and Brooke wants to prepare her family.
Polly and Lyman, by contrast, want to seal up that part of their past forever. The conflict that ensues leaves Trip juggling his allegiances and Silda cheering on Brooke, while Polly fulminates and Lyman simmers. The stakes rise even higher when family secrets come to light, and actions taken with the best intentions have damaging consequences.
Baitz has fashioned an emotional slalom course that zigzags between affection and aggression. Director Mark Alan Gordon emphasizes the comedy and counters its acidity with calm, offhand physical contact between the actors. In other words, he shows us a family whose members simultaneously test and love each other.
The warmth Gordon draws from his actors is designed to make us care about them, no matter where we stand on the political spectrum. By letting the verbal stabs land without much laceration, Gordon keeps the focus on the play’s humor and shows that this family knows how to heal as much as hurt. This production emphasizes the characters instead of the dramatic conflict but still delivers the complex psychological story in Baitz’s script.
Karen Lefkoe has measured, cut and wrapped herself in Polly’s style, which might be termed California imperial casual. From hairstyle to stage movement, she conveys privilege and assurance in a performance of true grandeur. Her Polly’s imperturbable confidence means we can’t quite hate her; as maddening as her opinions may be, Lefkoe shows the courage and perseverance that make this character admirable. And she goes beyond brittle, shrill strength to catch Polly’s warmth and vulnerability.
Eva Gil, as Brooke, is adept at the comedy and cunning in her ability to deflect the family’s slings and arrows. When her mother dishes out a dig at her writing career or politics, Gil has Brooke pretty much shelter in place — she neither cringes nor explodes, but instead answers with wit that’s never laced with anger. Gil’s Brooke is too smart to lose control, and too fresh from her breakdown to risk real rage. Her liveliness onstage, and especially her banter with her brother, read authentically.
Bill Carmichael’s Lyman is perfectly convincing as a former movie star — his self-assurance and good looks have just a bit of ham sprinkled on top. Carmichael captures Lyman’s nonstick affability, and when he projects his Daddy’s Little Girl rays on Brooke, it’s done so thoughtfully that we know he’s learned from her not to push too hard. Carmichael is endearing as he shows genuine affection for everyone in the family, ready to tune out their sharp tongues and bask in their presence.
As Trip, Justin Quackenbush has a consistently cheerful presence, filling the role with a bubbling mix of repartee and irreverence. He may be an adult, but the family seems to equate producing an idiotic TV show with never growing up, and Trip plays along. Still, the viewer begins to suspect Trip is quite good at his job, and it’s a mistake to write him off. Quackenbush is playful and alert in every scene, quick to spot tension and find a new way to defuse it.
Dana Block tackles Silda without camping up her alcoholism relapse and subsequent recovery, or her black-sheep status. Her barbs come through, but Block avoids jockeying for attention. Her Silda isn’t quite the ticking time bomb that Baitz might have intended, but instead maintains a slightly dreamy connection with the proceedings. Her restraint lets her capture both the easy laughs and the harder ones.
Having designed a small, in-the-round set, Jeff Modereger has little space with which to work, but he produces elegant notes of opulence. The white palette makes a clever connection between luxury and emptiness.
The lighting design by Jeffrey Salzberg is tied more closely to mood than to space. When it works to amplify the family drama through a black-light glow or a sudden transition, it demands a little too much attention. But Salzberg generally supports the production style well.
Cora Fauser’s costumes beautifully delineate the characters. Polly and Lyman are dressed so perfectly, you either want to worship their wealth or tear them to pieces. Trip’s ironic and irreverent costumes give him just the right hipster, capable-of-anything look.
Gordon has helped this cast mesh into an ensemble capable of conveying the intricacies of family communication. They make the comic dialogue positively sing, and reveal deep relationships founded on love but challenged by past events. The play, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a beautiful mix of wit, character and storytelling. A family secret makes one terrific stage trapdoor.
"Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Mark Alan Gordon, produced by Vermont Stage Company. Through February 16, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. at FlynnSpace in Burlington. $32-37.50. vtstage.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Secrets and Lies"