Pain can be a healing shared fabric threading the lives of humans, at least when allowed the right outlet to connect. Or, in some instances, it can be the degradation of emotion which tears people apart. In the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, “Other Desert Cities,” pain surfaces in dramatic and poignantly funny ways as the affluent Wyeth family faces the impacting effects of the suicide of their son and brother.
Written by Jon Robin Baitz, “Other Desert Cities” premiered off-Broadway in 2011, and first starred the likes of Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin. It wasn’t until its reprisal at the end of 2011, with Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Thomas Sadoski and Judith Light, did it reach greater praise.
Having its premiere in Wilmington this weekend, Thalian Association will be debuting “Other Desert Cities” in their newly acquired Red Barn Studio Theater–an intimate space off Third Street, once owned by Linda Lavin and her husband Steve Bakunas. Lavin and Bakunas donated the building after their move to NY last year, which has taken them since to LA for Lavin to star in her first sitcom in years, “Sean Hayes Saves the World.” Though serendipitous that Thalian Association chose to launch the reopening of the theater with a show that originally starred Lavin, in a building once owned by Lavin, it’s the meat of the play which truly captivated artistic director Tom Briggs.
“We could have done any of a dozen plays from Linda’s illustrious past,” Briggs says. “That she created the role [of Silda Grauman] who Suellen [Yates] is playing is just a happy happenstance. . . . I read [the play] the moment it was published and it stunned me. It is a model of construction, the characters are so fully realized, and it has two back-to-back revelations in the second act that left me breathless. I immediately knew that, one day, I would direct this play. Then the theater gods dropped Red Barn in my lap and it was a done deal.”
Starring in the show is an illustrious, gifted cast. Briggs secured the likes of local powerhouse Rachel Lewis Hilburn to take on the Wyeth’s daughter, someone whom was deeply affected by her brother’s death to the point of being institutionalized over it. When she returns to her family’s Palm Springs home during Christmas, she comes bearing news of publishing a memoir about her activist brother’s demise.
“It’s a very difficult role—the heartbeat of the play—and Rachel is so focused and compelling, such an honest actor that I may never be able to imagine anyone else in the role,” Briggs states. “The whole family is forced to come to grips with its painful past.”
The well-to-do Wyeth parents consist of an ambassador father who once acted as head of the GOP and remained close friends with Ronald Reagan. Joe Gallison will fill the role with natural charisma and authority, according to Briggs, as well as insurmountable dignity. “He is simply magnificent,” Briggs says. Elizabeth Becka plays the emotionally chilling matriarch of the family, who was once mentored by Nancy Reagan. “We don’t often get to see Beth onstage, so it’s a real treat,” Briggs states.
Yates takes on a recently released rehab patient who ushers in much comedy to the production, someone Briggs admits as being “riveting and hilarious as a damaged woman harboring a secret of her own.” Filling out the cast is Kevin Ray Wilson, the youngest brother, who acts as a mediator and peace-keeper of sorts. “I’ve been a fan of Kevin’s work for several years but I don’t know that he’s ever had the opportunity to exercise the acting chops that this role affords him,” Briggs says.
A heavy political undercurrent runs rampant throughout “Other Desert Cities.” That the parents are staunch Republicans creates a divide between family members who stand on opposite sides of the spectrum. Facing the truths behind their son’s death from an anti-war atrocity, their own ideas and conceptual beliefs challenge their familial ties and bring to life the profundity of love and the extremes one goes to show it.
“The play is set just three years after the events of 9/11, which informs everyone’s sense of moral rectitude,” the director explains. “Today, the chasm between the left and right has become so sinister, so dangerous that the question is how can we compromise, how can we meet in the middle. So this family becomes a microcosm for our current American dilemma and that’s profound.”
Lee Lowrimore, known for his attention to detail in shows like “Venus in Fur” and “Boston Marriage,” will set-design the 2004 home, built in Califiornia in the ‘60s. “Lee calls the style ‘Desert Regency,’’ Briggs says. “We couldn’t find exactly the furniture we wanted so Lee, who is a fine craftsman, built and upholstered the furniture, which is absolutely gorgeous. In fact we’re going to be offering the three pieces he built for sale during the run of the play.”
Jeff Loy, most known for his film studio work, will do light production, while Charlotte Safrit will be in charge of costuming. Basically, it will consist of everyday clothing. “The actors need to be comfortable and just look like real people,” Briggs states. “There’s no sense of heightened reality here; it’s naturalistic and Charlotte knows how to pull all of that together.”
“Other Desert Cities” opens November 1st and runs through the 24th. Thalian Association will host a slew of upcoming shows at Red Barn in the summer of 2014, one per month during June, July and August. “They will be contemporary plays that profoundly illuminate our American lives,” Briggs says.
Other Desert Cities
Red Barn Studio Theater
1122 S. Third St.
Nov. 1st – 24th, Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $25 • 910-251-1788