Anyone who writes an honest tell-all memoir about their family will hurt some feelings.
Most parents, siblings and spouses would rather not have their private moments revealed in a book. And what if the family has secrets involving crime, death and politics, and disagreements about what it all means? In that situation, a family member who decides to write a memoir is making a decisive break. The writer must know that the family will never be the same again.
That’s the scenario that unfolds in Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” now receiving its Chicago premiere in a Goodman Theatre production directed by Henry Wishcamper. The play’s memoir-writing daughter, Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold), and her reality-TV-show-producing brother, Trip (a convincingly earnest John Hoogenakker), are visiting their parents’ home in Palm Springs, Calif., at Christmastime. The mother (Deanna Dunagan) and father (Chelcie Ross) are old-school Hollywood Republicans who used to pal around with the Reagans. The mom’s sister (the sublimely scabrous Linda Kimbrough) is also hanging around, fresh out of rehab. The memory of the family’s third child hovers over the holiday gathering. Everyone else avoids the topic, but Brooke drags it into the wide open.
Baitz has written the sort of play where nearly all of the action happens in one room, in one short span of time—the kind of drama where characters finally unbottle the pent-up questions and revelations they’ve been carrying around for years. It’s temping to imagine a different play (or perhaps a book or film) that actually shows all of the past events these characters are discussing, but “Other Desert Cities” succeeds in creating a heart-wrenching family drama within the confines of a living room.
It’s also quite funny, at least during Act 1, thanks to the mordant wit of Baitz’s characters and the smart performances by this stellar cast, which doesn’t have a weak link in it. Dunagan is best known for her Tony-winning performance as the matriarch in “August: Osage County,” and here she plays a similary imperious, domineering mother but in a different political and social milieu. Ross deftly plays her husband as a wounded man putting on a brave face for the world to see.
Arnold subtly captures the daughter’s shaky mix of nervousness and courage, as Brooke approaches her parents with both defiance and love. It is hard to believe, however, that this character doesn’t seem to anticipate just how much havoc her memoir will create. And as the play ends—don’t worry, no spoilers—Baitz tacks on an awkward epilogue with a shift in tone that doesn’t quite ring true.
In spite of those flaws, “Other Desert Cities” persuasively portrays the political and personal struggles of this family, with five top-notch acting performances that really shouldn’t be missed.
“Other Desert Cities” continues through Feb. 17 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Call 312-443-3800 or visit their website for tickets and schedule.