Review: Other Desert Cities (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembletheatreVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Sep 4 – Oct 18, 2014.
Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Lisa Gormley, Deborah Kennedy, Diana McLean, Stephen Multari, Ken Shorter

Theatre review
It is Christmas time and we visit the home of an older Californian couple, both prominent figures from the right wing of politics. Polly and Lyman Wyeth are not always politically correct, but their self awareness gives them an air of relaxed charm. Their children Brook and Trip have arrived for the festivities, but we soon discover that all is not well. Brook is set to publish a tell-all memoir and takes the opportunity to reveal the book to her family. Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, is a tale about the damage our closest ones inflict upon us, family secrets, and the stories we dream up in place of missing pieces. We keep the truth from one another because we think that people need to be protected, and also because of shame. We can choose our friends, and run away from them when intimate revelations become problematic, but family ties are hard to break, so we keep the peace, by perpetuating lies.

Baitz’s script is classically structured. It is amusing, gripping and surprising, with the potential to be incredibly moving. Its themes of family disintegration, mental illness, regret and guilt are all loaded with sentimentality, and when handled well, could be heartbreaking. Mark Kilmurry’s direction brings out the dramatic conflicts of the story with some success, but tension does not build up sufficiently. It is an energetic show, with good amounts of shouting and crying, but the plot does not always engage. The cast seems to be discordant, each finding separate emphases, and their chemistry does not quite convince.

Lisa Gormley invests heavily into her character’s depression and her torment is clear to see. Her early scenes before confrontations begin, feel forced and inauthentic, but her work in the second act is the show’s saving grace. Ken Shorter’s naturalism is a joy to watch. His presence is genuine and strong, but he brings a warmth to the role that does not always serve the narrative well.

Ailsa Paterson’s set design confines the Wyeths in the 1970s. Their home is dated, and we see that they have not moved on for over twenty years. We live the consequences of our decisions, good or bad. There is no assurance that doing the right thing would lead to brighter days, but the Wyeths’ story gives hope that resolutions can be found if you try hard enough.