Preview: Politics, family at play in scorching 'Other Desert Cities'

The cast of 'Other Desert Cities,' playing through April 6 at Florida Repertory Theatre.

David Dack Maki / SnapFlashPhoto

The cast of "Other Desert Cities," playing through April 6 at Florida Repertory Theatre.

What: Liberal daughter confronts conservative parents about the suicide of her older brother

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through April 6

Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers

Cost: $40 & $45

Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org

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Florida Repertory Theatre

2267 1st Street, Fort Myers, FL

— On Interstate 10 in California, as motorists launch their rolling tanks made of steel, rubber and fiberglass down the concrete ribbon heading toward Palm Springs, a sign appears overhead. It bears the name of no particular city, no finite destination; its just a sign.

If the resorts and pampered seclusion of Palm Springs hold no charm, drivers can head farther out into the searing Coachella Valley, toward the titular "Other Desert Cities."

"This is perhaps the smartest, most intelligent play we have ever done here at Florida Rep," producing artistic director Robert Cacioppo said. Cacioppo directs the show; the cast is drawn mostly from long-time members of Florida Rep's acting ensemble, professionals who have appeared together on stage again and again.

Jon Robin Baitz wrote "Other Desert Cities" about a liberal daughter who returns home to face her parents at the holidays. Her memoir, with an excerpt due to be published in The New Yorker, may expose long-buried family secrets and re-open old wounds. Mother, father, brother, sister and pills and booze-sozzled grandmother square off in a battle of angry words, bitter politics and private pain. The play was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received five nominations for the 2012 Tony Awards.

"All families have secrets," Florida Rep ensemble member Rachel Burttram, who plays prodigal daughter Brooke Wyeth, said.

Brooke, a writer who spent time in a mental hospital, blames her conservative parents (and their Reagan-era politics) for the death of her older brother. Ron and Nancy are repeatedly name-dropped, along with other members of the Kitchen Cabinet, like the Bloomingdales and Annenbergs.

"Other Desert Cities" spins around the fraught notion of whether literature might trump a family's desire for privacy. Do Brooke's privileges as an author supersede those of her parents and their fight to put a past tragedies behind? In researching the show, Burttram even dug up news item that mentions Reagan daughter Patti Davis's autobiography "The Way I See." A personal letter reveals that the ex-president begged her "not to publish the book because it will embarrass their friends."

"She's a writer and at a crucial crossroads," Burttram said of her character. "Where does your loyalty lie? To your family or yourself as an artist?"

Baitz makes his play a commentary on the power of truth versus illusion. Each character deals with reality by different methods, like pills, liquor, pliable companions or exile.

Cacioppo calls the show "complicated and rich," as well as a "Greek tragedy of sorts," describing Brooke as "a princess returning home to her self-exiled parents' kingdom."

Every kingdom has a queen.

In "Other Desert Cities," that queen in Polly Wyeth, played by Carrie Lund. The actress identified with the mother-daughter relationships within the show.

"The battles of who is right, who knows best," Lund wrote via email during the show's first previews. Even in the flat text on a computer screen, the weary sigh that only a mother could produce was all too apparent in her voice. "Whether they like it or not, daughters act and behave like their mothers and most times they try to resist it."

And every queen has a castle.

"These are probably some of the richest characters ever to appear on the Florida Rep stage and the setting will reflect that," Cacioppo said.

Richard Crowell designed an airy, spacious mid-century glass and rock vision that floats on the stage. Luxe furniture straight from the Clive | Daniel Home showroom fills the space. Two enormous royal palms created by the production staff frame an enormous desert picture window.

Yet, for Lund, the time and place of the play might be just as important.

"We spent a great deal of time understanding the time in history this family lived through and their status in the highly respected conservative community," she wrote.

Cacioppo admits he doesn't know which side of the argument Fort Myers audiences may favor.

"I am very curious how Southwest Florida will react," he said. "In New York the audiences clearly were pulling for the liberal characters. Will conservative Southwest Florida be pulling for the conservative side?"

While politics paper the background of "Other Desert Cities," it is not completely a play about politics. No one sits debating policy, although Donald Rumsfeld does get a shout-out.

"Families have very different political views," Cacioppo said. "Audiences will relate to that conflict or perhaps the silences as characters choose not to discuss their views. They will relate to the love this family has."

And it does come down to love.

After a Christmas Eve of booze, berating and bellowing, the Wyeth family reaches catharsis. Through tears, the family secrets are finally spilled and Brooke reaches peace.

"Love wins. It beats fear every time," Burttram said. "This show really is about family. It is about love, loyalty and truth."

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