Other Desert Cities
Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Christopher Jewell and Justin Kaznowski
September 14, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, Sundays at 2:00PM
Eclectic Theater 1214 10th Ave, Seattle 98122
$18 pre-purchase, $20 at the door
The first time I ever heard of Local Jewell Productions was back in 2012 when I was directing a show at Theater Puget Sound’s Theatre 4. My own production company shared the space with Local Jewell’s production of Butterflies Are Free. We maneuvered around each other’s props and sets, doing our best not to disturb the other. We alternated days in the space, set up, broke down, swept and made sure we were both comfortable, all while never laying an eye on the other. I suppose theater is like that sometimes.
As a relative newcomer to Seattle theater myself, I went on with my work, trying not to test the waters around me. But I secretly wondered who in their right mind had the guts to tackle honest to Thor realistic theatrical drama in a city whose fringe theatrical preferences tend to lean toward shock and display over form. Of course, I wondered this while lovingly designing and directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the fairies had orgies and ate each other. The irony is not lost on me.
I would like to state that I am neither condemning nor condoning either style of theater in Seattle. Both shock and form have legitimate room to flourish in the small start ups and the fringe theaters in this city. I love a good, bloody drench-fest as much as the next girl, just as I feel excitement for the Beckett celebration going up soon.
Seattle is a place that is thirsty for theater. ALL theater. New companies are springing up every year, artists are driven to create here and we produce some of the best theater in America. The simple point I’m trying to make is that there is a reason that Rocky Horror Show is produced by a different company in Seattle almost every year. Shock sells. And form tends to get a little lost underneath it.
Local Jewell Productions is brimming with form and delivers.
That October in 2012, out of a love to support small theater and a genuine curiosity about Local Jewell Productions, I saw Butterflies Are Free and I was so glad I did. The production was moving and honest. It had minimal everything; lighting, set and costumes. But the company knew what all good small theater productions know. That whether or not your set is grand and vast, whether or not your costumes are lush and intricate, whether or not your lighting is the highest tech and flashy, the essence of theater, what theater really boils down to, is actors on a stage, telling a story by baring their souls.
Local Jewell Productions did this well, and they did it again with the show I saw on Saturday night.
Other Desert Cities tells the tale of Brooke Wyeth (Anna Townes), a prodigal daughter with a history of depression who returns to her conservative parents’ swanky home in Palm Springs at Christmas. With her is a manuscript which details the family’s darkest scandal – her brother’s suicide, the blame for which is placed squarely on her parents, Lyman (Eric Bischoff), an actor-turned-ambassador during the Reagan administration, and Polly (Eileen McCann), an ex-screenwriter-turned-Republican stereotype. Also joining Brooke is her laid back, dismissive brother Trip (Chad Jones), a reality television producer, and fresh from rehab Aunt Silda (Wanda Moats), Polly’s liberal, alcoholic sister.
Guided deftly by directors Christopher Jewell and Justin Kaznowski, the show as a whole moves well and flows together. There were only a few longer holds between scenes and over all, the show felt that there was very little effort to make it as good as it was.
If I had no other opinions about this show, that would be enough for me to recommend it to everyone I know. I am happy to say, I have many other recommendations.
The cast is placed well in their roles. No part shines over the other, all are integral to the script and the story. The blocking felt natural, even when actors had their backs to the audience, it never felt wrong. It felt like a family, hanging out on their porch. With only one main exit, Jewell and Kaznowski used the awkward space of Eclectic Theater to great effect, a hard feat in of itself.
Townes carries herself as Brooke with a defensive aplomb the size of an atom bomb, and the majority of the play, we get the sense she could go off any moment. Townes is commanding, but fragile. Her slow, reluctant spiral out of control was marvelous to watch as her book, the one thing that has long anchored her, slowly morphs into a strange, terrible monster she alone imagined. The descent is only made better by her entrance at the beginning of the show. She enters confident, almost with swagger, lobbing politics back and forth with her mother like the tennis they just played.
Eileen McCann is a particularly menacing opponent as Polly Wyeth, and the audience almost wishes Brooke had chosen smaller game. She is fierce and scary, lording her mother knows worst over everyone in the household. Her racist utterances, jabs at the liberal agenda and nagging elitism are enough to make anyone shiver. McCann wears a grim smile throughout, knowing and calculating, as if everything you say is going to be marked down in Polly’s internal book personal grievances.
The only time Polly can be taken down from her iron parapet is when gruff but sweet Lyman removes her. Eric Bischoff is soft spoken as the Wyeth patriarch, working hard to keep the calm and always trying to make sure everyone is at peace. He does this with a slight weedling in his voice, giving us the feel of a man broken by politics, so inherently different to the dashing heroes he played on TV.
Poor Aunt Silda is Brooke’s only ally, but sadly, her reliability is taken away by her history with substance abuse. She has gone from addict to enabler; quietly manipulative and a cajoling, but under the appearance of doing good. Wanda Moats handles this well. She is addled and muted by Polly, unable to succinctly defend her thoughts. Moats shines under a wild mop of curls and a lost expression, even when she is upset. Her comedic timing (she has some of the best zingers in the show) and attempts to overcome the involuntary slurring gives Silda a realistic portrayal of the shell trying to get its yolk back.
Chad Jones played brother Trip with a natural ease. Trip is unapologetic for his role in the family. He makes money, he earns his rewards, he doesn’t need the stress, he is uncomfortable living under the shadow of a brother he never even knew. Jones’ refreshing honesty was one of the highlights of the night for me. He is one of those rare actors who slips behind the character, so I forget I’m watching a play. I am always eager to see actors who bring quiet dignity to roles that can so easily be overacted or turned into a caricature.
Once again, Local Jewell relied on its strong actors to tell the story. Costumes, set and lighting were minimal and natural, though confess I would have liked to see some small changes in the lighting. The show is presented in three distinct times of day and it would have been nice to bring in some twilight hues while the big reveal is given in Act 2. The oncoming night of the Wyeth’s uncertain future certainly deserves one Hell of a sunset.
Local Jewell Productions is worth the evening. Go see Other Desert Cities. Donate or volunteer. Support this stupendous little company bringing lovely, straight forward, honest form theater to you.
They deserve it and so does Seattle.
By Jennifer Klouse