January 19, 2020
Dream Project continues to engage
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
Other Desert Cities is the 2020 Sarah Frank and Jack Balcombe Annual Dream Project offering from Tallgrass Theatre Company. This year’s dreamers, director Michael Tallman and lead actor Kristin Larson, had their suggestion accepted, and Other Desert Cities became the addition to this season’s schedule. Frank and Balcombe were fixtures for years in the Central Iowa theatre and arts scene, attending almost every production and local art exhibition. They exhibited a special loyalty to Tallgrass, and left a legacy gift to help support the future of this innovative program.
This production was challenged with circumstances most shows don’t have to contend with: the first two shows were cancelled due to the wintry wickedness of Mother Nature. True to the core spirit of Tallgrass and this production team, however, everyone persevered and the show opened on its first scheduled Sunday matinee. (Would that the heaters in this marvelous intimate theater space been as cooperative on this frigid day.)
Jon Robin Baitz’s play open Off-Broadway in January of 2011, then transferred to Broadway in November of that year. Baitz’s show marked his Broadway debut, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This is a script filled with rich, complex dialogue, some lengthy monologues and a slippery elusiveness in the relationships between its five characters. Capturing the correct balance between all of these elements lies at the core of how to successfully deliver Baitz’s story. So, whether the delay in opening or the adverse conditions (both interior frigidness and exterior arctic conditions), this Tallgrass production doesn’t reach the full power of Baitz’s script. Still, this show should be seen. It likely will not be produced elsewhere in Central Iowa, is a marvelous script, and each cast member finds moments of performance excellence.
Several themes and questions are woven into the fallout from daughter Brooke’s return to parents, Polly and Lyman’s, Palm Springs home after six years of living in New York, writing magazine stories. It’s a Christmas gathering. Tensions have never been more taught. She wants – needs – to share her past six years of creativity with her family: writing a memoir. Her brother, Trip, the television producer, lurks on the fringes, at times, hyena-like. Polly’s sister, Silda, recovering from rehab, radiates a flawed power. The strongest family member has no physical presence: son, Henry, lost to suicide years ago after becoming drawn into the abyss of political radicalism. Their posh living quarters, just as their lives, are filled with a bounty of psychological and emotional landmines, and the family seems ready let the damage happen as each member strives to assert themselves. This story has the unfolding fascination of watching a horrendous car accident in slow motion.
As Lyman, Jim Morrill brings an authentic, escapist squirm to his role as a former film star turned politician aura about him. Molly is given plenty of iron-fisted matriarchal clout by Karen Schaeffer, whose steel-edged voice often proclaims herself as “the only capable one.” Schaeffer spits out her proclamations – “I don’t like weakness” and “I hate being fair” – with poison-dart precision. As the marginalized, survivalist son, Trip, Michael LaDell Harris has consistency and natural delivery in his character. His lack of scene time doesn’t allow him to impact the story as much as his abilities could, as he has a gift of responsiveness in working with others in his scenes. Susan Smith, as Silda, freshens up the action with her bombastic entrance, given the audience a breath of comic relief. As the pivotal daughter, Brooke, Kristin Larson internalizes her masterful role too much. She gives her character plenty of layering, yet needs to project her lines more. Larson finds stronger moments later in the play as the unveiling of full truths yields explosive results, and she discovers how she must handle the revelation contained in her memoir. The catalyst of the memoir forces Brooke’s parents to finally reveal what had been hidden from her for so long, forcing the final restructuring of the familial logjam of Henry’s loss.
After a challenging opening weekend, Tallman’s fine cast likely will find a better pacing. A sharper, quicker delivery will create better opportunities to grab the carefully embedded humor that pops up unexpectedly, and is needed to keep the freshness of the story from teetering into melodrama. Each of these talented cast members has many shining moments in this show, and settling into a run’s rhythm, which was denied on opening weekend, will give this show the chance to fully shine. Other Desert Cities is a worthy show for any and all cultural adventurers.
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