Other Desert Cities

A talented, fiercely committed cast makes this drama of a family homecoming arresting

Fire and ice, shadow and shimmer: the Wyeths at home 
(l-r, Babs George, Rick Roemer, Lara Toner, and Jacob Trussell)
Fire and ice, shadow and shimmer: the Wyeths at home (l-r, Babs George, Rick Roemer, Lara Toner, and Jacob Trussell) (Photo courtesy of Christopher Loveless)

Other Desert Cities

Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport Blvd., 476-0084
Through Feb. 24
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Austin theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
When is violence in theatre too much?

Shanon Weaver, Dec. 9, 2016

Making Room to Play
Making Room to Play
Create Space Austin kicks off the drive to secure more performing venues in the city

Elizabeth Cobbe, April 15, 2016

More Arts Reviews
"Shawn Camp & Darcie Book: Comity of Ghosts" at ICOSA Gallery
New ICOSA show unites the spirits within via the surfaces without

Wayne Alan Brenner, Oct. 16, 2020

<i>Murder on Cold Street</i> by Sherry Thomas
Murder on Cold Street by Sherry Thomas
Sherry Thomas' fifth outing in the Lady Sherlock series is as fascinating and feminist as ever

Oct. 9, 2020

More by Adam Roberts
<i>When the Rain Stops Falling</i>
When the Rain Stops Falling
Strong writing and a robust cast make Different Stages' production stay with you

July 10, 2015

<i>The Sorcerer</i>
The Sorcerer
The Gilbert & Sullivan Society's latest show may be lesser known, but it still prompts plenty of smiles

June 26, 2015


Other Desert Cities, Austin theatre, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Babs George, Rick Roemer, Lara Toner, Jacob Trussell, Bernadette Nason

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle