Sharp wit and dynamic tensions

Sharp wit and dynamic tensions

Human Race Theatre Company presents ‘Other Desert Cities’

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: [l to r] Kate Young as Polly Wyeth, Scott Stoney as Lyman Wyeth and Jennifer Joplin as Brooke Wyeth in “Other Desert Cities”; photo: Scott J. Kimmins

From fast-paced, clever family snipping to soul-shaking depths, Director Margarett Perry and her superb five-actor ensemble bring “Other Desert Cities” to the Human Race for a three-week run. The play, by Jon Robin Baitz, was 2012 runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. As usual with our local professional company, the highest, most creative production values are apparent. The result is a showpiece with opportunities for ALL to shine. And they do.

It’s Christmas Eve, 2004 and “the kids” have come home to mom and dad’s, Polly and Lyman Wyeth’s elegant Palm Springs house where it’s warm enough for tennis and a cold drink. She’s Kate Young; he’s Scott Stoney. Their daughter Brooke is played by Jennifer Joplin; younger son Tripp is Aaron Vega, and Polly’s sister Silda is Sherman Fracher. They are all set to celebrate, right? Not so much.

Brooke, a successful writer, brings her book about older brother Henry and the family devastation caused by his suicide in the rebellious ’70s. She shares the final draft of the soon-to-be-published story and meets the enormous resistance of her very conservative parents, friends of Ronnie and Nancy.

Silda, a recovering alcoholic recently out of rehab, is an outspoken liberal. Tripp has made a success of his life with a popular TV show about dysfunctional families. He’s studied at home, seeing the long-term effect of something that happened when he was only five years old. His loyalties are divided, it seems, but he clearly understands the need and the power of love.

Baitz’s play is well crafted, balanced both in plot and character. Director Perry said, “I like dark comedy,” and went on to comment on how creatively and comfortably she and the cast worked together to make sure each point of view is shown fairly. “Let the ideas flow” she said, “listen thoughtfully, but as the director, I am the decider.” She grinned at the obvious political reference, but was absolutely serious about her craft.

Kate Young’s character Polly, however, says, “I hate being fair.” She handles the dialogue of sarcasm and the quick repartee with great style, defending her emotions within a very brittle shell. Her scenes with her children and sometimes with her husband are distant – seeming as she seeks to control every situation. “I know who I am,” she says.

With her sister, Silda, she is mostly disgusted. They used to write together in Hollywood, and she exhibits a convincingly dim view about Silda’s slide into alcohol and repeated rehabs. That she’s also so outspokenly political makes the relationship worse, as does Silda’s previously unknown contributions to Brooke’s book. Young shows the character’s strengths skillfully with determination as unbendable as her poker-straight posture.

Resident Artist Scott Stoney played Young’s husband nearly a decade ago in the Human Race Theatre’s “Retreat from Moscow,” directed by Perry. Lyman is a very different character – a former actor, ambassador and father with some warmth and support for his daughter. Stoney has to be reveling in the opportunity to demonstrate how memorably – and hammy – Lyman used to “die” in his old movies. He earnestly tries to mollify family members, then is genuinely strong and firm.

Jennifer Joplin totally inhabits the central character, Brooke, infusing her with hope and depression, determination and erupting anger as well as moments of kindness and humor. She uses her voice effectively, reflecting one of her resume credits as a voiceover artist. Even her silences are significant – a master of wordless reaction; a focused look, a quick glance. She makes Brooke’s internal tortures visible and believable.

Wright State grad Aaron Vega, now a New Yorker, has some of the funniest lines in the play. He creates Tripp with humor and energy, imbued with passion and honesty. He, as does each of the characters, has a believable anger scene. He sees the elephant in the room and says so.

Silda, Sherman Fracher, is a tiny woman who creates a huge character. She’s wry, speaking her truth, resisting an alcoholic relapse, moving lithely, meeting her sister’s iron certainty with energy.

“There are no villains, no judgments,” Perry said. “We worked on developing every aspect.” She has directed with imagination, building seemingly natural scenes that are, in fact, quite theatrical. It works effectively. These people live there, moving over the entire set.

Perry and Scenic Designer Tamara Honesty worked together intensely by computer to reflect the mid-century era and the family.

“We were both drawn to angular stone and glass contrasting with curvilinear lines in the fireplace and my choices of curved furniture,” Honesty, who also designed the set for the play, “Becky’s New Car,” said, “Polly has circled the wagons.”

Technical Director Scott J. Kimmins and Head Carpenter Eric Moore are justly proud of the set, which includes realistic fieldstone walls, having cut each piece from altered rubber roofing material. Costume Designer Janet Powell provided character-reflecting clothing, especially Polly’s, from tennis to maxi. John Rensel designed lighting; Nathan Dean did sound; Kay Carver is production stage manager.

Finally, there are more family secrets to be revealed as the audience silently holds its breath. Perry hopes audiences will continue discussions.

Human Race Theatre Company presents “Other Desert Cities” through Sunday, April 13 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St. For tickets, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630, or visit ticketcenterstage.com. For more information, please call 937.461.3823 or visit humanracetheatre.org.

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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