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'Other Desert Cities' challenges perceptions of unconditional family love

"Other Desert Cities" at Kansas City's Unicorn Theatre

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Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre opened its newest production, “Other Dessert Cities” Saturday night, March 8 to a sold out house that stood immediately for the curtain call to signal their approval of the comedy/drama that just examines family strength and values.

"Other Desert Cities” features; Cinnamon Schultz, Merle Moores, Jim Korinke, Jake Walker,and Jan Rogge.  The play opened March 8 and runs through March 30 at Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre on the Mainstage.
Cynthia Levin

Count on the Unicorn to keep the new plays coming for their 40th consecutive season, this year featuring a knockout line up that continues with a Pulitzer Prize nominee, “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Sidonie Garrett that opened March 8 and runs through March 30.

“Other Desert Cities,” an Outer Critics Circle Award Winner, 2012 Tony Award Nominee for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize finalist brings yet another hit production to the Kansas City Unicorn Theatre. Earlier, Cynthia Levin, executive artistic director said that this year marks the first time in her 35 years with the Unicorn that she secured the rights to every show she wanted. The year’s blockbuster performances demonstrate that her perseverance paid dividends.

In “Other Desert Cities,” Brooke Wyeth returns home to Palm Springs after a six-year absence to celebrate Christmas with her parents; old-school republicans, her brother; a Reality TV actor, and her aunt; an eccentric house guest coping with addictions. When Brooke announces that she is about to publish a memoir exposing past events in the family’s history—holiday festivities come to a screeching halt.

The play deals with Brooke’s memoir of her past and specifically the loss of a brother whom she adored. Her perception of her life and her brother create the drama and focus of the story which teases the audience with good laughs as the characters reveal some of the quirks of the family dynamics and the fears of the pending publication.

As the play unfolds, the audience sees the mother/daughter conflict and the stone walls that separate the two. The audience learns why Brook perceives her life as she does. What also unfolds is a political battle between a liberal, free thinker and a stodgy old thinking Conservative. That said, a clash of ideals suggests a bitter struggle as well as some laughs as the two extremes collide.
Add to that mix an aunt struggling to overcome an addiction and a son who just wants everyone to get along. Both see the mother/daughter conflict from different perspectives. Perception and reality create the explosives of the show.

Act I gets the characters introduced and the conflict well established. Act I even foreshadows where Act II heads, but be prepared to go beyond the expected. What happens and unfolds journeys far beyond expectations.

The Unicorn’s cast for “Other Desert Cities” features; Cinnamon Schultz as Brooke Wyeth, Merle Moores as Polly Wyeth, Jim Korinke as Lyman Wyeth, Jake Walker as Trip Wyeth and Jan Rogge as Silda Grauman.

Schultz shows a friendly, likeable, and believable young author who continues to recover from a mental breakdown, six years ago. Her past struggles come to focus as she explains why and how the writing of the unpublished memoir served as her way out of her gloom and doom. Schultz makes the audience believe her and brings them along for her journey with her parents. Schultz’s character builds a strong foundation in the first act and further develops it through the second. Her facial expressions come to a climax in a scene with the father toward the climax of the second act. She demonstrates the horror and pain of the revelation as new light transforms her memoir’s perspective. Splendid character developments make the character real.

As Polly, Moores presents a very complicated character with a razor sharp, cutting edge that just keeps Brooke away and at arm’s length from the opening entrance. With smiles, she delivers the words that cut like Ginsu knives and never need sharpening. Moores takes the written word, smiles sweetly, and just adds acid to pour into Brooke’s wounds. And that happens before the conflict really unfolds. Moores shows an iron will and hard edge with steel determination. Her part is very difficult and she performs it with confidence.

In a dramatic turn, Kansas City’s well-known comedic actor, Korinke, brings a deeply conflicted characterization to “Other Desert Cities” as a father torn between his life, his past, his wife and his children. Korinke’s character in Act I only establishes the relationship and concern he shows for Booke. He wants her nearby and desires her mental health restored and fortified. Act II brings his inner conflict to the surface as he navigates between what is unknown and what is perceived by Brooke. Korinke performs a scene with Brooke that absolutely nails the audience to their seats with mouths agape. Forget any past performances, Korinke hammers his dramatic flair in this production. He builds his character from a small rumble to a torturous category five hurricane.

Young actor, Walker provides the fulcrum to the story as he balances the characters of Brooke and Polly in Act I. He’s also suffered at the cutting words and attitude of his mother’s disdain for his career. He’s learned to laugh at the pain and ignore the wounds. His facade, like that of his parents come from stern determination to fend off criticism and move forward. As the plot comes to a climax, Walker’s character evolves to heightened drama as he fights for understanding and escape from his reality. Walker undergoes the biggest character shift in the show from the light-hearted to crestfallen. Watch for Walker’s name in upcoming shows. He’s worthy of following.

The other character in the show, a wild antithesis of Polly comes to the stage via Rogge. Rogge’s character is the free-thinking California surfer-girl all grown up, but caught in the 70s of her youth. She clashed with Polly’s right-wing philosophies, yet relies on Polly for her welfare. Rogge nails the ageing Hippie, now recovering from a life of alcoholic bliss–and maybe a few drugs along the way. Her character goes from happy to shocked as she learns of her sister’s strong determination to live a forced lifstyle. Rogge gives a solid performance in a difficult role.

Give lots of credit to director Sidonie Garrett for taking the written word to performance grade. As the director, she and the actors must craft the characters and bring the heightened comedy and drama to the stage for mass audiences to enjoy. A reading of the play will demonstrate the meaning, but it’s the live action concept of each character that sparks the drama to new heights. Her casting was exquisite and all actors blended into a solid piece of performance art.

“Other Desert Cities” plays on Unicorn Theatre’s Mainstage located at 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111. The show runs March 5-30, with previews March 5, 6 and 7. Opening night is March 8. Performances run Tues., Wed. and Thurs. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri. and Sat at 8 p.m., and Sun. at 3 p.m. Talk back performances, where patrons are encouraged to stay after the show and discuss the play with the actors and director, are scheduled for March 11, 16, and; 23.

Tickets are now on sale. Call 816-531-PLAY (7529) EXT. 10, online at www.UnicornTheatre.org or buy in person at the box office located at 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, MO 64111. Special discounts are available for seniors (65+), students and patrons under age 30.