Other Desert Cities, the latest production at Pentacle Theatre, written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Pentacle polymath Geri Sanders, falls in the long tradition of American Domestic Realism. From O’Neill to Albee to Tracy Letts, we love our dysfunctional families in this country. However, unlike the best of this genre, Other Desert Cities failed to move me.
The play presents a conflict between two affluent, conservative, West Coast parents, and their liberal, depressive, East Coast novelist daughter—Brooke. Brooke’s new novel is actually a memoir of an old family scandal, the publication of which threatens to destroy the family’s reputation. Should she publish or not? Much argument ensues. Brooke’s brother and aunt contribute to the fight, but are mostly on the sidelines.
Individual performances from the cast are strong. Kate Thompson’s Brooke mixes vulnerability and strength in a way that makes her very human. Pamela Abernethy completely immerses herself into the hard-as-nails mother Polly. Ed Schoaps gets to show his emotional range as the father Lyman. Debbie Neel gets some of the best lines as Aunt Silda. Andrew Phillips plays the brother as lovably offensive, but if anything, I think the script wants him to be more of a jerk.
Despite the strong showing, I had two major problems with the production. In the first case, I did not find the characters sympathetic enough to invest in the conflict. Until late in act two, the stakes seem to be the parents’ reputation at the Club, and that was not enough to make me care. Secondly (and this is a directing problem)—the levels. About halfway through act one, the emotional intensity is dialed up to about a nine, and stays there. It becomes exhausting, and the actors have nowhere to go when the real bombshell hits in act two. The actors are clearly pouring their hearts out, but into an empty jar.
Overall, the play does too much telling and not enough showing, and the ending lets the audience off far too easily. Other Desert Cities runs through December 3.
Previously, on Salem Theatre
West Salem High School’s Cinderella (closed Nov. 19) was an impressive rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Phoebe Jacobs’ singing as Ella was excellent, but she was just a small part of a massive production. Costuming was especially striking, with two on-stage transformation sequences that were absolutely magical. Music might have been stronger, and there were a couple of technical gaffs, but the overall event provided immersive entertainment for the whole family.
Whereas Cinderella was Illusionistic, and wanted to whisk the audience away on a pink cloud, Western Oregon University’s production of Machinal (closed Nov. 19), a 1928 play by Sophie Treadwell, was a hard-hitting political piece that set out to disrupt and disturb the audience. Following the playwright’s lead, the production used every element of production to express the protagonist’s struggle against a repressive patriarchy. The show was powerful and moving and featured an absolutely bravura performance by Meghan Doerfler. The starkness and intensity of the production would not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s why we have chocolate and vanilla.
[Edit: Debbie Neel’s name was originally misspelled. We apologize for the error.]
“‘They seek him here, they seek him there,” Jay Gipson-King is a local educator and theatre artist, and Salem Weekly’s Salem Pimpernel. Keep up with Jay and see the full list of area auditions and performances at facebook.com/SalemTheatreNetwork.