This has been an very strong season at The Mark Taper Forum. With the exception of the dreadful, Los Otros, all of the plays have been very strong and the final play of the season, Other Desert Cities, is no exception. In fact, I think that it was one of the strongest productions that the Taper has had in many years.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz has taken a situation familiar to many, holiday family stress and has raised it several notches, as his main character, Brooke Wyeth, returns home with a shocking revelation, she is about to have her memoir published, a memoir spilling dark family secrets.
Baitz has written a show loaded with themes, moral questions and family dynamics. The characters are constantly crossing the line and breaking comfort zones, in the name of family love and caring. I found myself wincing as I recognized certain aspect of my own family dynamics, when sometimes love can come across as bossy and intrusive. It's very difficult to reshape parental relationships and boundaries as a child grows into an adult.
One of the questions that the mother poses in the show, is how long should parents be expected to support (moral or monetarily) the aspirations of their adult children. She asks this, as she continues to treat her adult children as though they have not graduated to adulthood, unable to see her own flaws as a parent. This family, again easy to recognize in my own life, has been unable to graduate beyond the dynamics that they established when their kids were growing up.
Baitz has created very complex characters, who during the coarse of the play, show all of their warts. As an audience member, I vacillated between sympathy and repulsion with all of the characters. It's hard to watch characters that are well-intending lash out at one another as they are trying to be understood. This is a show about communication breakdowns, presumptions and damaging secrets. The characters are all screaming to be understood. They all want a loving, healthy family dynamic, but they don't know how to listen to one another and accept a bit of a compromise. Baitz even manages to make the play funny, add a bit of levity to the seriousness of the situation.
The writing is so strong, that even if you can't see a production, read the play.
Prior to seeing the show, Dan had read about the use of purple costumes and the symbolism behind it. He didn't fill me in, to see if I would get it, as apparently it was specifically written into the play. I had no idea why it would need to be written into the play, as it is enough without overt symbolism tossed in. If it was important, this production didn't do a very good job at making it clear. I doubt that I would have even noticed that the characters were wearing purple, if Dan had not pointed it out. It was so subtle.
The set was beautiful, an upscale home in Palm Springs. Really though, the set was just icing, because the writing is so good, that this could have been performed on a blank stage with no costumes, minimal props and it would still be a great show.
Besides the writing, the other joy for me was seeing a great cast. This was one of the best ensemble casts that I have ever seen, everyone strong. Before even coming to the show, I was geeking out over seeing on of my favorite character actresses, Robin Weigert, on stage. She was perfectly cast and held her own against the powerhouse JoBeth Williams, playing the matriarch of the Wyeth family. The cast has a great chemistry and is totally believable as a dysfunctional family.
This is a beautiful, poignant story that will stay in your thoughts well after leaving the theater.