It's the kind of show that reminds you just how high community theater can fly in this town, with its deep talent pool of unpaid actors.
SNAP Productions' “Other Desert Cities,” a smartly written contemporary tale of secrets and disintegrating family loyalties, opened Thursday. All five in director Todd Brooks' cast give terrific performances. The season's first drama no doubt will rank as one of its finest.
There's no room for faking it, or a lapse in focus, in the confines of this 55-seat theater, where harrowing confrontations unfold in the audience's lap. This cast is up to that challenge, delivering one quotable line or deeply moving moment after another in ways that feel devastatingly real.
It's Christmas Eve 2004. Brooke Wyeth (Daene Schweiger) has come home from the East Coast to Palm Springs, Calif., for the first time in six years.
Her wealthy parents are thrilled to have her home, yet wary. Brooke, a published novelist, is recovering from a long bout of clinical depression, years after being told her brother Henry had committed suicide.
Lyman (Kevin Barratt), her likable dad, is a former movie star turned politician, still a bit of a mover and shaker in the GOP, an ex-ambassador under President Reagan.
Polly (Connie Lee), her mom, is part of Nancy Reagan's elite socialite circle. Polly sometimes exhibits more backbone than heart, more need to control than compassion, though she nursed her depressed daughter for months.
Polly's sister, Silda (Kim Jubenville), is a lapsed alcoholic just out of treatment, living with Polly and Lyman until she can get back on her feet. Though she and her sister were Hollywood screenwriters together, she doesn't share Polly's right-wing politics. Nor do Brooke and her brother, Trip.
Trip (Matt Hemingway) is a successful reality-television producer in Los Angeles. He was just 5 when the family lost his brother in the 1970s. Henry was a druggie leftist radical, implicated in the fatal bombing of an Army recruitment center just before his demise.
This volatile family's fragile Christmas truce shatters when Brooke announces she's written a memoir — her version of what happened to Henry. She's brought manuscripts that make clear this will rip a carefully constructed public mask off family history.
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz (“The Paris Letter”) is as good at intelligent verbal volleys as he is at swaying sympathies from one character to another as the family's past spills out in spurts and torrents. A tennis match of emotion, both onstage and in the audience, “Other Desert Cities” is cleverly constructed, thoughtfully staged and skillfully executed.
It's a tribute to Barratt and Lee that you believe their characters are truly loving parents, in spite of the lacerating things they say in the heat of the moment. Hemingway is spot on as the kid caught in the middle, and Jubenville provides both comic relief and key information as the story's loose cannon.
For my money, this is the finest performance yet by Schweiger, an award-winning writer, director and actress. An explosive climactic scene — you'll know it when you see it — felt perfectly played Thursday night, no mean feat considering it takes consummate skill on the part of all five players.
Echelle Childers' costumes also feel just right. Scenic design by Brooks and Joshua Mullady does its best to signify affluence on a limited budget.