For purposes of transparency, I need to reveal that I first saw “Other Desert Cities,” a dark comedy by Jon Robin Baitz, in 2014 at Indiana Repertory Theatre. When I saw the Carmel Community Players production of this play at a preview performance on Thursday, I strove not to compare the two. Still, it was nearly impossible to completely block memories of the former production, which featured first-rate direction, acting and production values. Nevertheless, CCP, a volunteer community theatre, which is avocational and with fewer resources than its professional counterpart, deserves credit for its ambitiousness.
Given the political polarization happening in our country these days, even causing bitter rifts in families, “Other Desert Cities” remains timely. The play opens with the return of writer Brooke Wyeth (Shannon Samson) to her wealthy conservative parents’ home in Palm Springs at Christmas in 2004. A New York resident, she has been in constant rebellion against her father Lyman (Ronn Johnstone), a former Republican ambassador and mother Polly (Vickie Cornelius Phipps), a rigid perfectionist, but continues to seek their approval. Brooke has written a memoir about her beloved older brother Henry. He was involved in an anti-war bombing of an army recruiting station during the Vietnam War and brought shame upon her unforgiving parents. Over Christmas Eve, she debates with her politically opposite parents, reminisces with her endearing younger brother (Jeremy Tuterow) and reconnects with her meddling, recovering alcoholic Aunt Silda (Miki Mathioudakis), whose credibility is questionable. When the news of Brooke’s book is announced, Polly and Lyman have to decide whether they’ll share a shocking family secret or risk exposure when the public learns of it through their daughter’s story.
Directed by Jim LaMonte, members of this CCP cast, despite occasional line flubs by some, turned in believable performances. Standing out were veterans Phipps as the unbending Polly and Mathioudakis as flamboyant but broken Silda. Johnstone was impressive as Brooke’s measured, loving father Lyman. Samson, executed her emotionally demanding role as the bright, confrontational, reactive Brooke, with aplomb (In the interest of full disclosure, Samson works with Klein & Alvarez Productions and is a friend). Lastly, Tuterow, gave a convincing performance as Brooke’s happy-go-lucky, TV producer brother Trip.
During intermission at the preview, mostly attended by residents of area senior facilities, I overheard an individual complaining about the language of the play’s F-bomb-saturated dialogue, so be forewarned. Otherwise, this family drama, with its themes of war, political division, depression, addiction, memory and complicity is stimulating and worth experiencing for its sharp commentary that still resonates with the times.
For tickets to “Other Desert Cities” call (317) 815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org. The production runs through Feb. 11. at the Carmel Community Players Playhouse located at 14299 Clay Terrace Boulevard, Carmel, IN 46032.