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The Chicago Spotlight Shines On Other Desert Cities
Goodman Theatre play reveals the big trouble facing a prominent California family
In a scene from Other Desert Cities, the actors include (left to right) Tracy Michelle Arnold (Brooke Wyeth), Chelcie Ross (Lyman Wyeth), John Hoogenakker (Trip Wyeth) and Deanna Dunagan (Polly Wyeth). 
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   STRIFE, tension and major disagreements are sometimes more than just a little bit evident within the most loving families, and all of those elements are at the forefront on the Goodman Theatre stage in the Jon Robin Baitz play Other Desert Cities, a lively and clever drama that was described as “the best new play on Broadway” when it premiered in November 2011.
   The Goodman production, running through February 17, centers on a long-held family secret that’s about to be exposed. During the 2004 Christmas holiday, the Wyeth family, led by prominent Palm Springs, Calif., conservatives Polly and Lyman Wyeth, is in an uproar when writer and liberal daughter Brooke returns home after six years to announce that she is about to publish a memoir that reveals the tragic secret in the family’s history. Her decision causes further turmoil and dissension within a family that has severely different political views and unparallel thoughts about how things should work in general.
    “People like material that makes them laugh, think and feel all at once, and this play does that. I think ultimately it’s a play about a dysfunctional family that loves each other,” says Henry Wishcamper, the play’s director. “And it brings up all kinds of issues like secrets, truth and love and change in ways that are very specific to this family. [The play] also has a lot to say about our culture and our politics in a way that is really fascinating and moving.”
    Baitz, who serves on the faculties of the master of fine arts programs at The New School for Drama and Stony Brook Southhampton, has written many other successful plays, including The Film SocietyThe Substance of FireThe End of the Day and A Fair Country, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1996. His television work includes episodes of The West Wing and Alias, and he is the creator of Brothers & Sisters, a series that could be seen on ABC until 2011. But Other Desert Cities, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is considered by many observers to be among his best work. Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls quickly grabbed the opportunity to bring the play to Chicago as soon as Baitz suggested that the Gooodman be among the first theaters to produce Other Desert Cities after its stint on Broadway. Falls, who had directed Baitz’s play Three Hotels at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2011, immediately thought Wishcamper would be the perfect director to work with a special cast that could bring each character to life.

The play's director, Henry Wishcamper (left), discusses the play with Chelcie Ross, a veteran actor who has been cast in a variety of television and film roles, including TV's Boss, which was produced in Chicago.
   Wishcamper, a recently appointed Goodman artistic associate, has a long list of directing credits, including Animal CrackersHorton Foote’s Talking PicturesSpirit ControlPort Authority and Pullman Car Hiawatha, which received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Revival of a Play. For the production of Other Desert Cities, the Yale University graduate assembled an impressive and versatile cast that’s talented enough to put their signature on a play that’s funny, dramatic, thought-provoking and moving. Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan is the matriarch Polly Wyeth and Chelcie Ross (seen in TV’s Mad Men and Boss, and a number of films, including The DilemmaHoosiersBasic Instinct and Rudy) is patriarch Lyman Wyeth. In addition to Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold) returning home for the holidays is her brother Trip (John Hoogenakker), an easygoing Hollywood producer. Also on hand to enjoy the holiday festivities is their mother’s sister Silda (Linda Kimbrough), a liberal former screenwriter who recently has been released from rehab.
    “All five roles in the play are great parts for actors. There’s a lot of meat for them to tear into. They are all articulate, passionate and damaged people who love each other desperately and are profoundly damaged by one another,” Wishcamper says. “Each actor needs to bring so much in terms of being able to sell the comedy, in terms of being able to play the emotional scale of the piece, in terms of being able to handle the language and the intellectual ideas, and then to fit with each other as a believable, credible family.”
     Other Desert Cities offers a clear and convincing snapshot of family life that plays out on different levels in different families. The nature and magnitude of the problems may differ, but in the end the dilemma is the same––how to put the family back together again.
    “I hope people are entertained [by the play]. I hope they laugh, and I hope that when it’s over they feel like … they have to talk about it,” Wishcamper says. “I think it’s the kind of play that you find yourself having a different point of view a week later. But mainly, while you’re there, I hope that it will be gripping and funny and moving.”




The technical crew includes Adam Belcuore, casting; David Lander, lighting designer; Richard Woodbury, sound designer; Joseph Drummond, production stage manager; and Joe Pindelski, dramaturg.

Tickets for Other Desert Cities ($25 - $86; subject to change) can be purchased at GoodmanTheatre.org, by phone at 312/443-3800 or at the Goodman Theatre box office (170 North Dearborn).


–– Walter Leavy