Family feuds abound in 'Other Desert Cities'

Published: Saturday, Oct. 19 2013 4:20 p.m. MDT

Michael Zlabinger and Nancy Lemenager in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Other Desert Cities."

Alexander Weisman, IceWolf Photography

Imagine your most chaotic family Christmas — the house bursting with conflicting personalities and differing opinions.

Imagine now that the family has a secret they don’t want to revisit, or share, and someone brings it up.

“Other Desert Cities” opens at Pioneer Memorial Theatre on Friday, Oct. 25, and it’s a chance to peer through the window on a family that may be a bit more volatile than yours.

The Jon Robin Baitz play premiered on Broadway in 2001 and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. “Other Desert Cities” looks at the Wyeth family as one daughter, Brooke, comes home for Christmas after six years. A writer, she announces to the family that she’s written a memoir that addresses a family tragedy/death. The family isn’t keen on her sharing their past. Throw in Hollywood as a backdrop and a healthy mix of Republicans and Democrats, and Christmas just got a lot less jolly.

“It’s a good old-fashioned American family drama,” said director Charles Morey. “But there’s a lot of funny stuff in there. There’s a lot of humor.”

“The play ultimately is about the responsibility of family to family, and more specifically, in this case, the responsibility of the artist to her work, and telling the truth,” he said. “It really revolves around ideas of individual responsibility to those we love.”

“It’s a really compelling piece about a family with really compelling issues,” said actress Joyce Cohen, who plays the mother. “This family is so funny and articulate. They know how to deliver a barb and can be very funny but also very hurtful.

“I think that’s what makes the play work,” she said, “when it’s written so specific that it becomes universal. You can relate to the arguments and discussions, even though it’s not the same issue specifically. And this is terrific playwriting; it really takes you on a ride.”

“ ‘Other Desert Cities’ is in the great tradition of ‘All My Sons’ or ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ those great plays about what it means to be part of a family,” Morey said. “It resonates with all audiences.”

Cohen agrees. “When I first saw the play in New York, it felt like a well-made Arthur Miller play,” she said. “You knew the playwright was in control and they were going to take you on a ride.”

Set in 2004, the fictional tale brings up real moments such as the Vietnam War and Sept. 11. “It will resonate with people who lived through the war,” Cohen said, “but is really a terrific piece for younger people getting acquainted with theater. It’s very contemporary, it’s very smart.

“I was just listening to a radio interview with an actress who said, ‘I’m from a dysfunctional family,’ and the host said ‘aren’t we all?’ ” said Cohen. “I think there are degrees of dysfunction in all families. Whether or not you relate to this specific tragedy, there are elements you’ll find familiar.”

Content advisory: contains strong language

If you go ...

What: "Other Desert Cities"

Where: Pioneer Memorial Theatre

When: Oct. 25-Nov. 9, times vary

How much: $25-$44

Phone: 801-581-6961

Web: www.pioneertheatre.org

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