With Halloween over and the holiday season officially upon us, the coming months will offer much in the way of charming, sugar-sprinkled and heartwarming entertainment to enjoy with our families. Redwood Curtain Theatre's production of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz is not one of those productions. However, for those navigating their own family dynamics, it may be far more relatable than tales of endless good tidings and cheer. It is a story of family struggling through unique circumstances, yet their foibles and frustrations are familiar. For that reason it is a fitting piece for this pre-game moment before we are all fully immersed in the frenzy of family, friends and the holidays.
Other Desert Cities tells the story of Brooke who has come home to Palm Springs for the first time in six years to visit her family and share the manuscript of her new book. Clearly strained relationships are pushed further when she reveals that she's written a memoir that investigates a particularly painful moment from the family's past. As the action unfolds over Christmas Eve, long-kept secrets are revealed and questions are asked about what truth is hidden in memory. Set in 2004, the script is highly topical, filled with specific references to '80s and post-9/11 figures and politics. Examining the difference in beliefs between generations, a war of ideology plays out over endless cocktails. Running nearly two and half hours with intermission, it is a longer show, but the pacing and tension keep the audience engaged throughout. The play is a beautifully taut portrayal of a family in crisis. It embraces the truth that living and loving do not always come naturally, and that healing can be found in that understanding.
This production plays to the strengths of Redwood Curtain as a company. The size and layout of the theater lends itself to shows where the audience gets to feel like a fly on the wall, and in Other Desert Cities this effect is increased through the beautiful work of scenographer Lynnie Horrigan, who provides the scenic, lighting and costume designs. The set is a convincing quintessential Palm Springs living room complete with wet bar and a beautiful modern art piece painted by Horrigan. Moving through the space and gazing out over the audience, it is easy to believe the actors are looking out into the expanse of the Southern California desert and that the world they inhabit is real.
The show also benefits from solid casting. As matriarch Polly, Bernadette Cheyne delivers some lines with such authentic venom that you cannot help but cringe. In contrast, there is her former ambassador husband, Lyman, played by Lincoln Mitchell, who even in retirement cannot help but try to keep everyone happy and getting along. Charlie Heinberg plays youngest child Trip, a classic Valley Boy whose casual exterior conceals inner depths. As central character Brooke, Cassandra Hesseltine is entirely believable, allowing the audience to empathize with her journey and feel the pain of her struggle. Rounding out the cast is Lynne Wells in the role of witty Aunt Silda, who deftly provides needed comic relief without being at all one-dimensional. Overall, it is a strongly executed production well worth taking in.
Some shows leave you feeling a bit raw in the best way possible. In asking us to witness and experience another's discomfort and pain, they provide friction, which, like sandpaper on wood, can reveal the intricate beauty underneath, leaving the audience as enlightened and transformed as the characters on stage.
Other Desert Cities is directed by Peggy Metzger, assisted by stage manager Justin Takata. Sound design is by Jon Turney. The production runs through Nov. 22 with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. There will be an additional matinee performance Sunday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 on Thursdays, $15 for all other dates. For more information call 443-7688.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opens at North Coast Repertory Theatre on Nov. 13. This classic musical satire of corporate maneuverings plays through Dec. 13 with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with select Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors. For reservations and information call 442-6278.