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Ghosts of the Once-Mighty California GOP

Courtesy Scott Suchman
Playing through May 26 at Arena Stage, Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities” is a production for those who enjoy wit and political maneuvering, and for those who understand just how critical political identity is.

Leo Tolstoy may have been right when he said that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way, but he was wrong about happy families all resembling one another. Or perhaps he would have amended his feelings if he had seen Jon Robin Baitz’s “Other Desert Cities,” a close look at a family of elite Californians coming to grips with their fall from grace and their long climb back to it.

Playing through May 26 at Arena Stage, the audience looks on as members of the unhappy Wyeth family — guarded, angry, resentful, damaged and incredibly funny — have their emotional bones reset, journeying from toxic judgment of one another to the beginnings of mutual respect and understanding.

This is a play for those who enjoy wit and political maneuvering, and for those who understand just how critical political identity is.

The family breaks down like this: Lyman (Larry Bryggman) and Polly Wyeth (Helen Cary) are the parents. They are rather isolated from their Palm Springs community and keep firmly to their circle of California GOP elite, the likes of which have seen their political fortunes soar during the Reagan Revolution — the Wyeths were friends with Ron and Nancy — and crash and burn in the Golden State’s contemporary culture.

The show opens on Christmas Eve; their left-leaning daughter Brooke (Emily Donahoe) has come home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence. She is a writer who has just completed and sold her second book.

Mixed into this familial cocktail is Trip (Scott Drummond), the youngest Wyeth, who is a Los Angeles-based reality television producer. He is loving, protective and quietly resentful of his parents and sister.

Finally, there is the recently sober, eccentric Silda Grauman (Martha Hackett), Polly’s caustically funny, damaged sister.

Relatively quickly, the audience realizes that these five adults — none of them are particularly young — have spent the better part of their lives ignoring, judging and resenting each other.

Baitz’s dialogue is finely wrought and the pace of the action, to the extent that there is any real action, is tightly wound and unravels at the key points quickly and rather beautifully.

Brooke is in Palm Springs after her extended exile with a memoir in tow. She is also in recovery from massive depression that spanned years and left her hospitalized. The memoir reveals many family secrets and it was composed without her entire family’s input. The real research Brooke conducts for the memoir is through reading her own diaries and consulting with Silda, a person with her own agenda.

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