by Ruth Ross
To (badly) paraphrase Tolstoy, “Happy families keep secrets. Unhappy families keep secrets so shocking that their divulgence could ruin images, reputations, relationships and—even worse—the way we view ourselves.”
One such family, the Wyeths, is the focus of Jon Robin Baitz’s modern drawing room drama now onstage at the Chatham Players, whose carefully curated lives are about to blown apart. Daughter Brooke has returned to her parents’ home in Palm Springs, California, after a six-year absence to celebrate Christmas with her brother and her aunt. The problem? Brooke has brought with her a draft of what turns out to be a memoir dredging up a pivotal and tragic event in the family's history—a wound they don't want reopened: the suicide of her late brother Henry, who had been involved with the radical underground subculture in Venice, CA and a horrific incident resulting from their advocacy. In effect, Brooke draws a line in the sand and dares them all to cross it. (Above L-R: Lynn Langone, Adriana Spizuoco, David Romankov, Terri Sturdevant, Scott Tyler)
Under Jonathan Wierzbicki’s taut direction, the layers of secrecy are peeled away bit by bit until a stunning confession is made in the play’s final scenes. For one thing, Polly and Lyman Wyeth are Reagan Republicans so fervent that photos of Nancy Reagan, Frank Sinatra and Barry Goldwater share the fireplace mantel with those of family. That their oldest child was involved in the bombing of a military recruitment center that killed a custodian rocked their world, so much so that many of their friends abandoned them. In addition, Brooke’s crippling depression and own suicide attempt, not to mention a failed marriage, have led her to believe that writing such a memoir is vital to her recovery and her family, whether they approve of it or not. Too, Polly’s Jewish background has been hushed up, and her sister Silda Graumart (Sturdevant, above, with Tyler) is a liberal alcoholic recently released from rehab who has helped Brooke write her book. The only family member who appears to have no secrets is son Trip, the creator and producer of a successful reality courtroom television show; trying to remain cheerful in the face of disaster, he attempts to broker peace between Brooke and her parents.
The quintet of actors assembled by Wierzbicki is more than up to tackling Baitz’s riveting script. In what I believe is one of her finest performances, Lynn Langone (left, with David Romankov; Terri Sturdevant in background) is disapproving and cruel as the brittle Polly, determined to retain her place in Republican society. She maintains this demeanor until the final scenes, when she finally throws away pretense to reveal a woman who has suffered mightily and continues to do so. David Romankov’s Lyman is more loving toward his offspring, his sadness at losing a son more evident early in the play. GOP chair and former film actor (cowboys, police procedurals, much in the vein of Ronald Reagan), he sustains an almost noble stoicism in the face of adversity.
Scott Tyler (right) as Trip bounces around the Roy Pancirov’s sleek set like a tennis ball, trying to deflect the conversation from dangerous subjects. He clearly loves his sister and his parents, even though the latter (especially his mother) think he’s wasting his time and talent on a reality television show. And Terri Sturdevant has a grand time playing Silda, drunkenly careening around the living room, spouting Yiddish terms just to annoy Polly and sticking up for her beleaguered niece. Beneath her wisecracks is a woman at odds with her sister’s political views, sad that their one-time writing partnership dissolved over diverging ideals yet a bit gleeful to use Brooke to get back a bit of her own.
Adriana Spizuoco (left, with Romankov) is wonderful as Brooke, the central character around whom the conflict swirls. Her angst is convincing, her sparring with her sibling natural and her reactions to her mother very believable. The loss of Henry, her best friend, is the root of her depression; in her dogged desperation to learn the truth, she’s unmindful of the others’ feelings, pushing them until the secret is revealed. She’s an actor to watch.
In his Director’s Notes, Wierzbicki notes that Baitz’s conflicted characters are “lovingly cruel, depressingly hopeful, happily woeful,” and I second that observation. The actors onstage feel like a real family. When the lights go down, we have confidence that, once the truth is out, they’ll come to terms with their grief and be more understanding of each other.
Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, Other Desert Cities is a worthy addition to the more cutting edge plays the Chatham Players have presented over the past 20 years. This community theater once again proves that there are dramatic “gems” in the suburbs of New Jersey. Attracting superb actors, they remind us that we don’t have to pay hefty tolls and parking fees to enjoy top-quality theater. Don’t miss this production.
Other Desert Cities will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through October 20. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.763.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.
Photos by Howard Fischer.