Chicago Theatre Review
Secrets and Lies
Other Desert Cities – Citadel Theatre
From the beginning, director Mark Lococo’s sparkling production of Jon Robin Baitz’s play sizzles with a premonition of the emotion that’s to come. Somewhat drawn from his own experiences, the title refers to a highway sign on the eastbound interstate directing drivers toward Palm Springs, California and “other desert cities” in the Coachella Valley. The Wyeth family is gathered together for Christmas, a holiday that signifies peace on earth and goodwill to everyone. However, nothing could be further from what will transpire within the next 24 hours. Comedy quickly turns to drama when successful daughter Brooke, now enjoying her life as a New Yorker, returns to her family home, sharing the news that after six years she’s about to publish her next book. The conflict erupts when Brooke confides that this won’t be a novel, but rather a memoir about her family during one of their darkest periods.
Named Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play by New York’s Outer Critics Circle, Baitz’s family drama was nominated for five Tony Awards (winning one for Best Supporting Actress) and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. It explores how secrets and lies from a family’s past can affect the present and the future. The playwright paints a portrait of a group of people who, at first glance, seem like a typical, upper middle class dynasty of adults; but when Brooke’s memoir threatens to expose hidden family secrets and unearth deeply buried emotions, a number of shocking lies suddenly explode into the light.
Whitney Morse, one of Chicago’s finest young actresses, thoroughly inhabits the role of Brooke. A stunningly versatile performer, memorable for her diverse performances in productions of “The Children’s Hour” and “Accomplice,” Ms. Morse makes this young writer, who’s suffered through depression and the demands of family pressure, a real, live woman. The empathy and honesty she brings to the stage is heartfelt and a palpable. Ellen Phelps makes a welcome return to the Citadel stage as Brooke’s opinionated mother, Polly. After turning in fine performances with shows like “Sirens” and “Something’s Afoot,” this is Ms. Phelps’ finest performance. In an award-worthy performance, the actress never takes the easy way out in this role. She makes bold choices, going for broke playing this indomitable, gritty, unflinching woman with a cool edge that belies the volcano seething beneath the surface. Together, these two remarkable actresses provide the best reasons for seeing this terrific production.
But the rest of the cast is just as wonderful. Judy Lea Steele makes her welcome debut at the Citadel as Silda, Polly’s sister who’s now living with the Wyeths, following time spent in rehab for alcohol dependency. Providing much of the play’s humor, Ms. Steele plays this outspoken, feisty woman with confidence and ease. Drew Wieland, another Citadel newcomer, is both natural and honest as Trip, Brooke’s younger brother. As a young, successful producer of reality TV, the young man’s as innocent as his sister regarding his own family’s reality. Like Brooke, Trip’s responses are more leftwing than his conservative, Republican parents, but Mr. Wieland’s portrait of a young man with his own opinions is strong and believable. As the patriarch of the Wyeth family, Geoff Isaac’s portrayal of Lymon, the former movie star, shows strength, quiet devotion and steely determination. Mr. Isaac has the least showy role. Sharing the stage with four strong actors can be challenging, but Mr. Isaac is up to the demands. In the play’s final moments, Lyman Wyeth drops his tough facade and, for the first time in the play, shows the real man inside. Mr. Isaac finds that eleventh hour moment of vulnerability that makes his performance so memorable.
Mark Lococo has directed this production with polish, skill and an abundance of heart. He demonstrates care in bringing out these characters and staging his brilliant cast upon Eric Luchen’s impressive set. Except for a somewhat sloppy display of framed photographs that betray the controlled orderliness of this household, Mr. Luchen provides ample playing areas in a modest space that’s tasteful and elegant in its simplicity. Eleanor Cashen’s costumes effectively show an affluent family who, while stylish and tastefully dressed, don’t feel the need to display their wealth.
This show stands out as one of Citadel Theatre Company’s very best, in a long line of productions. Selecting this noteworthy play was the first stroke of wisdom; lining up a talented cast of actors, an accomplished director and a dynamic team of production artists complete the journey toward excellence. A drive up to Lake Forest will certainly reward theatergoers with an emotionally moving experience they will never forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 13-March 15 by Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-735-8554 or by going to www.citadeltheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.