Home. It's a word very much on the mind of Austin Playhouse Artistic Director Don Toner at the moment, and not only because the theatre company he helms is settling into temporary digs for a second time in as many years. No, the archetypal homecoming narrative also ranks as one of the most popular to flow from playwrights' pens, and the plot of Other Desert Cities is proof of that – except, of course, that in it, writer Jon Robin Baitz breaks the rules and then some. And like Baitz's script, the Playhouse's production is stunning.
In fact, it's not to be missed. Why? Perhaps Ben Brantley said it best in his New York Times review of Desert's 2011 Broadway premiere, calling Joe Mantello's direction "a masterly combination of shadow and shimmer." There's no Mantello at this production, but the shadow/shimmer dichotomy factors wondrously in Don Toner's direction, in Holly and Patrick Crowley's set work, and, perhaps to the greatest degree, through the chiaroscuro-like nature of Baitz's script. In this instance, however, it's thanks in greatest part to Toner's actors and their incredible portrayals of five relatives who convene one Christmas in Palm Springs that makes for such an arresting evening of theatre.
That shadowy, shimmery quality is most evident in the portrayal of Wyeth family matriarch Polly by Babs George, who glistens with an icy exterior fit for the most formidable of snow queens. George's cool performance is tempered by that of Rick Roemer as Polly's husband, Lyman (side note: take a moment to consider the characters' names as you watch the show). Roemer's characterization exudes the warmer aspect of this fire-and-ice couple, resulting in a performance to melt the hearts of fathers everywhere. As Polly's polar-opposite sister Silda, Bernadette Nason turns in yet another off-the-handle tour de force, providing the majority of the script's levity. The Wyeths' daughter (and Baitz's hero/antihero?) Brooke is given a well-thought, well-rendered performance by frequent Austin Playhouse director Lara Toner, whose navigation of her character's journey provides the play's through line.
Although the entire cast is especially strong, extraordinarily talented, and fiercely committed, it is Jacob Trussell – incidentally, the only cast member who's not a member of the Playhouse acting company – who turns in the heartiest performance of all. His Trip (son of Polly and Lyman and brother to Brooke) is as riveting and multilayered as it is realistic and honest, and exemplifies the "acting is reacting" adage of theatre.
It must be true that home is where the heart is; if you need convincing, seek out a certain storefront in Highland Mall for proof.
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