Other Desert Cities at QPAC – A Review by Helen Johns

Robert Coleby courtesy Queensland Theatre Company

The Queensland Theatre Company and the Black Swan State Theatre Company is currently jointly presenting the acclaimed Other Desert Cities at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane reports our Queensland Features Correspondent Helen Johns.

Other Desert Cities chronicles Christmas Eve at the home of the Wyeth’s of Palm Springs, where we eavesdrop in the living room overlooking the panorama of the desert and can’t look away from the family dramas that ensue.

Relationships are stripped bare and emotions are raw as family members come together following estrangement, family tragedy and mental illness. The result is an explosion of love, hate, intolerance, rigidity and an unsettling plot twist, which changes all the dynamics and extinguishes stereotypes. Those who seem like cardboard cutouts develop unsuspected dimensions and the sands shift.

The Wyeth’s are having their first Christmas gathering in six years, which heightens family tensions and brings to the surface everyone’s anxieties and vulnerabilities.

There are only five characters in this drama – archetypes we all recognize. Rebellious daughter, fun-loving son, controlling mother, resigned father and crazy aunt.

The arch-republican parents, Lyman and Polly Wyeth played by Robert Coleby and Janet Andrewartha believe the ills of the world can be traced to drugs and left wing whiners.

The Wyeth Family; Robert Coleby, Janet Andrewartha, Conrad Coleby and Rebecca Davis

Lyman is a former gun-slinging movie star and US ambassador in the style of Ronald Reagan and Polly is the perfect political wife modeled on the iron will and velvet power of Nancy Reagan, one of her friends and contemporaries.

The year is 2004 and they are in self-imposed luxury exile in the always sunny, perpetually perfect climate of Palm Springs. There are two grown children, Trip Wyeth, a reality television producer played by Robert Coleby’s real life son Conrad and his older sister Brooke (Rebecca Davis), the nervous depressive writer who is home after a breakdown, divorce and in possession of the manuscript from hell – a tell-all memoir set to tear the family apart. Into this mix we add crazy aunt Silda (Vivienne Garrett), Polly’s sister and one time screenwriting partner who represents everything the Wyeths are not.

Left-wing, broke and alcoholic and wearing a bargain basement Pucci knock-off she stirs the pot in their picture perfect world.

These are people who have settled into their worldview and are arrogant in their assumptions, displaying consistent house blindness to other family members.

They all wear their own brand of coloured glasses and it is these lenses through which they view the world.

The smugness of the first act gives way to reality in which the seemingly plastic characters are forced to face up to the consequences of their deceptions. It packs a punch so be ready for it when it comes.

The most likeable character is Trip who seems almost normal, but is surprisingly insightful in spite of his easy-going affable demeanor. Conrad Coleby gives a very strong performance and has a good grasp on this character that has more depth and nuance than first appearances would suggest.

Brooke’s hard fought resistance to the family charm is obvious. She’s anxious, nervous and fragile but intends to publish her explosive memoir whatever the consequences.

Robert Coleby gives a very solid and totally believable portrayal of a polished retired politician whose carefully constructed character unravels as desperation takes over.

He holds accent well, a difficult task for all the cast to maintain for a solid two hours.

He delivers a great ‘movie star’ death scene, worth the price of a ticket just to see it. (It also happens in the first half so you can head out for a beer if all that emotion is just too much to take.)

Janet Andrewartha is Polly Wyeth in a powerhouse performance that makes a difficult and rigid character accessible to the point that it’s hard not to feel her pain. As well, she gets some of the best lines.

 ‘It’s either all or nothing with your generation – you’re either vegans or meth addicts. Or both.’

All the characters are given their chance to shine and no one character is proved right  – there is no prevailing attitude that wins in this war. We are witnesses to the turmoil of five totally different characters and how they perform when high beam is focused on them. Hidden secrets are exposed and there is nowhere to hide for any of them.

This is a rich and multi-layered collection of personalities and testament to the skill of the good writing; we feel sympathy for them all, even while they’re irritating us. Each one is capable of being charming, annoying, selfish and compassionate. They are savagely articulate showing affection and aggression in equal measure.

Other Desert Cities is sophisticated family drama, gleaming with wit and polish.

Cutting to the core of the play, Polly asks the question

‘Why is it that children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life, you know…you all want to stay children forever, doing whatever mischief you can think of.

The production is collaboration between Black Swan and Queensland Theatre Company. Both Queensland and Western Australia share wide-open spaces and a sense of isolation. The allusions are clever. The desert is the chosen backdrop for this family drama and as Wesley Enoch, the artistic director of Queensland Theatre Company points out

‘The characters stare out into this endless desert behind their safe walls but like all biblical stories the desert is a place of cleansing and self-reflection.’   

The other star of the show is the stunning set design by Christina Smith.  The living room is beige-on-beige perfection, an oasis in the desert and a safe haven.

‘The living area has a ‘vastness’ to it, not so unlike the desert outside…when a small family is placed inside this footprint, the distance within their relationships becomes apparent.’

The addition of the fire pit in the lounge room adds to the sense of intimacy and creates an atmosphere for storytelling and secrets.

Cleverly written, witty and dramatic, Other Desert Cities is the work of playwright Jon Robin Baitz who also wrote Brothers and Sisters and some episodes of The West Wing. He does complicated family dynamics very well and in particular the difficult terrain of interaction between generations of vastly different personalities and worldviews.

Other Desert Cities is a human drama, well written, well acted and well presented with a surprising and satisfying plot twist.


Optus Playhouse QPAC

10 August – 1 September 2013

Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Kate Cherry

Set and Costume Design by Christina Smith
Lighting by Trent Suidgeest


Robert Coleby as Lyman Wyeth
Janet Andrewartha as Polly Wyeth
Vivienne  Garrett as Silda Grauman
Rebecca Davis as Brooke Wyeth
Conrad Coleby as Trip Wyeth

Nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play (2012)
Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2012)

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