Part of the experience of attending a play in a small theater is how the room makes you feel. When I entered the Station Theatre last Thursday for the opening night performance of Other Desert Cities, I was welcomed into a living room: pristine, filled with personal touches, and warm. Set designer Julie Rundell took care to present the audience with a space to comfortably occupy even before top of show. Her aesthetic balance, earth-tone palette, and attention to detail in furniture and set dressing allowed the right amount of space for the Wyeth family to come to life.
And did they ever.
This show combines some of the best acting forces I’ve seen in community theatre. Kudos to director Kay Bohannon Holley for her superb choices in talent. Each actor remains distinct in the energy he or she brings to the show. Sitting in the front row at the Station Theatre, that’s something you feel as an audience member. Due to the intimacy of the space, you tuck in your feet and hold in your breath so as not to disturb any moment on stage. My experience as a spectator was heightened; I was in Palm Springs, California, sitting in the Wyeth family living room. I felt awkward at their tension, relished their humor, and was keenly aware of their idiosyncrasies. This is how I knew the acting moved me.
I was particularly drawn to Joi Hoffsommer’s interpretation of Silda Grauman, a lady fresh out of rehab and staying with her sister's family. A seeming antagonist, Silda is the one who broke the mold — the artist (in a family of artists), the candid family lush. She loves with good intentions, but her honesty can sometimes be harmful. Hoffsommer approaches the role with great vulnerability, offering herself as the bones and allowing Silda to become her muscles and heart. On stage, she emanates genuine concern and powerful listening. The audience is able to how the past impacts her present through her physicality and delicate handling of Silda’s earnest wants. Hoffsommer is comfortable lending her body to her character and making dynamic choices. From small physical ticks to frequent outbursts, Hoffsommer knows Silda inside and out.
Also feeding into this sensation is Kate Riley and her portrayal of Brooke Wyeth. The protagonist of the play, Brooke’s story is most closely followed, unearthing her skeletons and displaying her dreams in the form of a memoir. She is under the most scrutiny and the most pressure from her parents, and she fights their coercion as she battles with the decision to publish her writing, airing the Wyeth dirty laundry. Riley approaches Brooke Wyeth head-on, taking on her anxieties, her joy, and her relationships with others. Her honesty resonates throughout the space, invading the audience. When Riley speaks, we are compelled to listen. Her Brooke has a chaotic, just-about-to-boil-over energy; and when she finally does hit that boiling point, we believe her.
Actor Joel Higgins relieves tension with his fun-loving, peacekeeping, understanding younger brother, Trip Wyeth. He is lovably awkward and listens well to insert his witty comments effectively. I admired the actor’s energy from the beginning; an immediately goofy presence, he is comfortable in the space and with the rest of the ensemble. He is believably bewildered, an intent listener, and his moments of outburst are genuine. He responds to the action and the desires of those around him. Although easily dismissed as the “normal” sibling, I appreciated his uplifting presence and rooted for him the entire time. He reveals the dimensions of Trip with subtle grace, and the audience's heart breaks with his at the culmination of his arc.
Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson and Steven M. Keen add to the lively ensemble dynamic with their interpretations of Polly and Lyman Wyeth, the opposing paternal forces to Brooke. As old-guard Hollywood stars who've become standard-bearing Republicans, they are ultimately martyrs, but the audience doesn’t realize it until later, and we feel for them. Keen's square stoicism and charm is nicely countered by Kodes-Atkinson's tough but honest matriarch. They are, in short, a completely believable couple whose chemistry is both easy and easily underestimated.
The production as a whole is carried by the actors. A few ineffective staging choices seemed to challenge the natural navigation of the set: a beverage cart that serves as a forced home base, and the use of downstage is inconsistent. But, as the show's tension heightens, a rhythm between players develops on stage and the storytelling intensifies. Such compelling, absorbing interplay seriously outweighs any blocking issues, and this cast has been masterfully facilitated by director Kay Bohannon Holley.
Other Desert Cities at the Station Theatre is an actor-driven story that brings the audience on a journey of joy, discovery, and heartbreak without ever leaving the Wyeth family living room.
The show continues this week and next, closing May 10th.