by Lenise Willis

Family is a powerful force. Parents and siblings alike can both drive us insane and console us at the same time. They get under our skin and push our buttons, and yet we still love them. And, of course, there’s always the constant battle of who really knows what’s best. There’s really nothing like family drama.

Truly shining the spotlight on the intricacies of family is the cunning drama Other Desert Cities, which Triad Stage presented last weekend. The play, which balances the serious topics of war, suicide and terrorism with familial love and the comic relief of witty jabs, features a young woman who threatens to publish an exposing memoir on her family and their biggest secret: Her brother’s supposed act of terrorism and suicide.

The entire play takes place in her parent’s home in the desert resort city of Palm Springs, California, during Christmas. The writer “” home from New York “” is seeking blessings to publish her new book. But her family isn’t going to give in so easily because they see her act as traitorous to the family. Instead they delve into a two-hour debate, exposing hidden feelings and truths.

For some, the lack of action might make it difficult to pay attention all the way through. For me, the discussion was enthralling and actually helpful. The characters are strong and well thought out, so watching them develop and reveal their layers was insightful. My boyfriend and I both were amazed at how much we took away from the production, and how much better we felt we understood one another as well as some of the members of my own family.

The characters in the play include powerful, Republican parents, an open-minded, easygoing son, a lost and troubled daughter, and a crazy gin-soaked aunt, all of whom are contrasting, relatable and believable. Juxtaposing their differences in personalities, background and opinion enabled new insight into each character””and the type of person each character represents.

Of course, part of the credit must be given to the playwright, Jon Robin Baitz, who crafted five vastly different, yet very specific characters. But the talented cast also added strength to their roles. I was amazed how detailed the actors were in crafting their personas “” even when I didn’t know there was “more to the story,” they gave me the feeling that there was. They were able to portray hidden feelings.

Donna Wandrey (Polly Wyeth) gave an amazing performance as the loving, but stern, direct and proper mother. And I must say that having my own great aunt and uncle who own a “desert home” in California, the costumes and composure were spot on.

I also couldn’t help but see myself in Brandy Zarle’s character, Brooke Wyeth. Zarle captured many of my own facial expressions and mannerisms when I’m in fight mode. Every time she squinted her eyes, cocked a sarcastic attitude and made expressive hand gestures, I could relate from personal experience.

Scenic designer John Coyne shaped the intimate play with an ingenious set that’s not only gorgeous (with a fireplace I’d love to call my own), but that actually makes the audience feel like they’re a part of the family. The furniture is arranged so that the audience feels like they’re completing the living room circle. Nothing is placed between the audience and the characters. We’re sitting with them.

I felt so included that there were moments when I actually wanted to interrupt with points of my own, and not to defend just one character. Several times I switched back and forth, trying to decide exactly with whom I was going to side.

I, of course, first identified with the writer (played by Brandy Zarle) who clearly enjoys sparring “” a woman after my own argumentative heart “” but then suddenly found myself siding with the parents and realizing their hurt and pain caused by the daughter’s selfishness. In the end, until truths were revealed, I still didn’t know who was “right.” And maybe no one is, sometimes.

I have to say that I usually find these types of conversational plays monotonous because of the lack of action and set changes, but not this time. It was too helpful and intriguing to turn away. It might have actually been my favorite play by Triad Stage. But maybe that’s because I walked away with new perspectives and hours of astute conversation. !


Triad Stage presents Other Desert Cities, which runs this week through Sunday at the Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem. Tickets are $10- $48. For tickets and more information call 272-0160 or visit