Just Deserts 

THEATER REVIEW: Virginia Rep’s powerful “Other Desert Cities” explores political extremism and finds common ground.

click to enlarge Irene Ziegler (Polly), Joe Inscoe (Lyman) and Sandi Carroll (Brooke Wyeth) turn in excellent performances in director Chase Kniffen’s thought-provoking take on the family drama, “Other Desert Cities,” playing at Virginia Repertory Theatre.

Aaron Sullen

Irene Ziegler (Polly), Joe Inscoe (Lyman) and Sandi Carroll (Brooke Wyeth) turn in excellent performances in director Chase Kniffen’s thought-provoking take on the family drama, “Other Desert Cities,” playing at Virginia Repertory Theatre.

There's something about going home for the holidays that makes you feel like you're 13 again.

Between your parents treating you like a kid, clashes over politics and revisiting stories you've tried to forget, suddenly you're transformed into the moody, petulant teenager you stopped being a long time ago. It's this sort of setup that opens Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Other Desert Cities," a play about family secrets and revisiting the past.

Brooke Wyeth has returned home to celebrate Christmas with her family in Palm Springs, Calif., and from the outset she knows the visit won't be pleasant. She's recently recovered from a long bout of writer's block, and she's about to publish is a memoir that paints her family in a less-than-positive light. But as she confronts her parents about the skeletons residing in the family's well-appointed closet, Brooke finds that things aren't exactly as they may seem.

To tell this story, director Chase Kniffen has pulled together a cast of five supremely talented actors. As Brooke, Sandi Carroll gives a well-rounded and engaging portrayal, unafraid to embrace her character's confrontational and sometimes prickly nature. Brooke has survived crippling depression and lived to tell the tale, even if it isn't a tale her family wants told.

As Lyman and Polly, Joe Inscoe and Irene Ziegler recreate the parental dynamic found in many families, with a domineering mother and a father who largely goes with the flow. Lyman is a former film star turned GOP politico, and if the Reagan connection wasn't established firmly enough before, Polly frequently refers to Nancy as a friend. Ziegler commands the stage as the icy matriarch who's survived the bumps of politics, and Inscoe brings to life the quiet fuming often found in white men of his generation who wonder what happened to their country.

As all living-room dramas must have at least one witty alcoholic, Melissa Johnston Price portrays Brooke's liberal Aunt Silda, filled with self-righteous anger over the suicide of Brooke's older brother, Henry. Trying to keep the family peace is Trip, Brooke's younger brother who produces inane television shows. Though his role is largely in support of the other actors, Mike Long does admirable work.

But the sixth star in this production is Ben Burke's expertly designed and constructed California living-room set. The room's manufactured warmness is in direct contrast to the jagged mountain range behind, driving home that the Wyeth house has become a shelter from the viciousness of the world.

While Jon Robin Baitz' script takes plenty of shots at Republicans and their embrace of fear as a political tactic, the inclusion of the Henry's Weather Underground-like dealings gives the work balance. Baitz is making the point that political extremism of any shade can be dangerous, and that it's our common humanity that unifies us.

Riveting, powerful and funny, Virginia Rep's "Other Desert Cities" is a thought-provoking and entertaining piece of theater. S

Virginia Rep's "Other Desert Cities" plays through May 18 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For information call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.

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