It seems a rare theatrical phenomenon when a playwright understands how to emotionally connect with a generation; the audience for which they write. John Robin Baitz does this brilliantly in his Pulitzer Prize finalist/Tony Award nominated family drama, Other Desert Cities, that is running at Mark Taper Forum through January 6, 2013.
In Other Desert Cities, Brooke Wyeth (Robin Weigert) is in mid-recovery after six months in the mental hospital. With her northeastern liberal values intact she is on a Christmas visit to her loyally Republican parents (Robert Foxworth and JoBeth Williams), brother Trip (Michael Weston) and recovering alcoholic Aunt Silda (Jeannie Berlin) in Palm Springs. She is a relatively successful novelist, but has not published in six years. However, she arrives for the holiday having gotten through her writer's block and drops a bomb when she announces that she is about to publish a memoir with incriminating secrets that could thoroughly unravel this family.
On the surface, during a time of war in "other desert cities" (Kuwait to be specific) this seems a typical family drama fraught with fiery clashes during an arid (in more ways than one) Palm Springs Christmas. However, Robert Egan's direction illuminates Baitz's finely crafted, complex characters, family cracks, deeply entrenched conflicts, and emotional volatility that make this a play for the ages. We discover that this is much less about a war of political ideologies, and rather, about the war that gets fought internally between the dire need to tell our absolute truth, and fear of truth itself. It's also about how these wars get played out externally, and the consequences that has for our most cherished relationships. Silda, portrayed bravely by Jeannie Berlin sums it up well when she says, "These people, driven by fear, have taken ownership of an entire country. And fear -- fear led to punishment... just to hold on to the way things were.'"
Brooke's manuscript incites a battle that has every character steadfast in their individual convictions and values to the point of losing one another. Robert Egan, however, directs a top-notch ensemble that has the actor's moving seamlessly as a family even as they are falling apart. All the while their compassion for one another is obvious. We see this most vividly when Trip, delivered earnestly by Tom Weston in his most heightened state declares, "I couldn't give a f**k about literature... because on your last day on this planet, you'll be scared, and it won't matter as you take your last breath -- all that will matter is how you loved." These actors know what's at stake, and they poignantly deliver.