Charles Morey and Joyce Cohen are returning to their home turf of Pioneer Theatre Company to produce Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," a richly human family story.
Morey, a playwright and director, is the former longtime artistic director; Cohen, his wife, has created many memorable roles on the Pioneer stage. Since Morey retired in 2012, the couple have been splitting their time between Utah and New York.
The play "a good old-fashioned American family drama" is how Morey, the director, describes it is about the secrets that bind and separate us. It's a play about humility, and the hubris of the act of writing, Baitz said in a PBS Art Beat interview posted on YouTube.
As one family continues to fight across the political divide of the Vietnam War, "Other Desert Cities" poses the question of who has the right to tell a story.
"It's ultimately about what we owe each other as family, what we don't owe each other and what we have to do to maintain our own individual strength," says Morey, while recalling the political fights that broke out at the dinner table in his family. "One of the things that makes this play so rich is that everybody who walks into the theater has a family. All families, to some extent, are dysfunctional. It's where we live."
Pioneer Theatre Company, like many regional theaters, draws a mixed audience of liberals and conservatives, which means that stories that unfold against a political backdrop "bring some of those arguments right into the family, if you will," Morey said.
Set on Christmas Eve 2004, "Other Desert Cities" focuses on what happens when Brooke returns to her parents' Palm Springs home with the manuscript of her new book. Her memoir opens new wounds in old battles over her brother Henry's suicide. To the shame of their old-guard Republican parents, Henry had been an antiwar activist during the Vietnam War.
Cohen plays Brooke's mother, Polly Wyeth, whose husband, Lyman (Dennis Parlato), a retired actor, was appointed an ambassador in the Ronald Reagan administration. Cohen describes the character as "very smart, very witty and very conservative," a woman who cares fiercely about her family and political issues.
Morey adds: "She's a very complicated, rich character. You think you know who she is and then there's an incredible turn at the end, and it all makes perfect sense where she's coming from through the entire play."
Nancy Lemenager, who plays Polly and Lyman's daughter, describes Brooke as an interesting combination of fragility and strength, whose mother is always attempting to toughen her up. "She is her mother's daughter on so many levels, but she's has been scarred and emotionally stunted by the death of her brother," says Lemenager, a New York-based actor. "She is trying to heal a very, very deep wound that was not allowed to be discussed in any way in her household."
Even before her parents have read the manuscript, the subject of Brooke's memoir drops another bomb in the Wyeth family. "I don't understand what there is to be afraid of," Brooke says. "Is there a blanket ban on writing about my life if it involves anyone else?"
She's goaded on by her alcoholic aunt, Silda, Polly's sister: "You thought there would be no consequences to telling the truth?" Silda asks. "Telling the truth is a very expensive hobby."
The onstage sparring between the mother and her daughter is so intense, Cohen says, that she wants to hug Lemenager after every rehearsal.
Baitz's play earned dazzling reviews in its Off-Broadway and Broadway runs in 2011 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. It's one of the country's most produced plays this theater season, with 13 shows planned in the country's regional theaters, according to the Theatre Communications Group.
"The only problem with the gorgeously acted Lincoln Center Theater production of 'Other Desert Cities,' Jon Robin Baitz's seriously satisfying new play, is that you probably need to see it five times," Ben Brantley proclaimed in The New York Times in January 2011. That's because each of the play's five characters is worth watching and listening to, Brantley opined.
Yet for all the seriousness of the play's themes, it's also funny. All five characters are smart and witty "and they all have really sharp tongues," Morey said. "Everybody in the play has their say. Everybody has their aria, if you will. And it's deeply moving."
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Palm Springs and 'Other Desert Cities'
Pioneer Theatre Company presents Jon Robin Baitz's family drama.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 25, and runs through Nov. 9; 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday matinees
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25-$44; 801-581-6961, http://www.pioneertheatre.org; K-12 student discount Monday and Tuesday
Advisory • Adult language; simulated pot smoking