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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 14, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 24
Desert of dysfunction - ACT's latest explores the dynamics of a politically divided family
Arts & Entertainment
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Desert of dysfunction - ACT's latest explores the dynamics of a politically divided family

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

OTHER DESERT CITIES
ACT Theatre
Through June 30


Get ready for a caustic, funny, biting, family dysfunction dramedy at ACT Theatre. Their current production of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities boasts a kick-ass cast and a layered and unfolding family plot that feels like it plays off Nancy and Ronald Reagan's real-life family.

You have the deeply Republican old-guard parents, Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Kevin Tighe and Pamela Reed), and their much-less-Republican offspring, Brooke (Marya Sea Kaminski) and Trip (Aaron Blakely). Brooke has written a second book after a long dry spell, including a long stint being suicidal and hospitalized. It turns out it's a memoir, focusing on the oldest son, who had been drawn into the drugs and counterculture youth rebellion of the '70s and committed suicide.

Brooke, having written this memoir egged on by her deeply agitated, somewhat emotionally fragile aunt Silda (Lori Larsen) - who lives with and resents her sister Polly enormously - has come back for Christmas to her Palm Springs parental home with the prepress galley, ready to get her family's blessing. This one aspect is the weakest area of the strong script, because even the audience knows, sight-unread, that this very private family will not want its dirty laundry aired in such a way.

LAUGHING AT THE 1%
So, the table is set for the strong-willed women of the family to spar and spit at each other, while the men watch from the sidelines with varying degrees of stoicism and dismay. While much of the first act lends itself to those who like to think of conservative rich folk as fodder for humor, with their silly first-world problems and old-fashioned attitudes, the power of the second act and the revelation at the end of the play shake up the idea that we know who these people are.

The play is brand-spankin' new, since it played Off Broadway in 2011, moved to Broadway the same year, and was up for a Pulitzer in 2012. It's an example of the ability of ACT to attend to and jump on strong new plays, both locally and nationally. A whisper on opening night was that this production rivals the Broadway one comfortably, and maybe even is better, though the Broadway cast included Stockard Channing and Tony-winning Judith Light as Silda (for this featured role).

A SPECTACULAR RETURN
Our cast has the luminescent Lori Larsen back on stage after a three-year (unwilling?) hiatus, and you should be so, so glad to see her! The role definitely calls for a take-charge player and is written for comic relief, so it's no surprise that Larsen got an ovation just for her first scene. She makes every aspect of her work look effortless and real. Let's hope sincerely that we see much more of her after this. She is a stage treasure.

The meat-and-potatoes roles of father and son are embodied by Tighe and Blakely, and both hide their emotions in plain sight, doing the difficult work of not speaking exceptionally well. Tighe, in particular, has so much going on while not talking that this reviewer spent a lot of time watching his reactions. Blakely plays some comic relief, but also has to maintain the difficult role of 'little brother who can't change his family and can't add much.'

Reed, known by most in movie and television roles, shows her complete command of the stage in a roaring yet restrained monster-mother role, a woman of firm opinions and no-holds-barred commentary. Kaminski shows a range of emotions as the almost-fragile, needy, almost-independent daughter who both wants approval and loathes her need for it. Brooke's deep need for information and family history drives her to expose her family and excise her wish to end her life.

Directed with a sure hand by Victor Pappas, designers Robert Dahlstrom (set), Frances Kenny (costumes), Alex Berry (lights), and Brendan Patrick Hogan (sound) create a seamless tech-scape of upper-class surroundings. Other Desert Cities is ACT's best production so far this season. For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call (206) 292-7660.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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