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News Section: Arts and Entertainment

Asolo Rep Scores Big with Other Desert Cities

Published Tuesday, January 28, 2014 12:04 am

SARASOTA -- Seldom does a dramatic stage play come along that has the gravity of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, a family saga that centers around a daughter's memoir dealing with her conservative political family's personal tragedy. With five complex and integral characters, the production asks much in terms of casting and direction. Fortunately, Asolo Rep has managed those challenges quite well in their current production, giving local theater fans the chance to see a remarkable performance of one of the best plays to emerge in recent years.


Benjamin Williamson and Lauren Klein

photo by Gary W. Sweetman

Other Desert Cities earned Baitz, an accomplished playwright who also created the hit TV show Brothers & Sisters, a finalist nomination for the Pulitzer in 2012. His ability to mine compelling drama through complicated familial relationships and fondness for beautifully-flawed characters are on full display in this deeply-engaging work.

“It’s a very raw, very honest, very funny play – smart, bitter, scathing, really one of this author’s best works,” said director Greg Leaming. “Other Desert Cities is a portrait of a family that is very unique and uniquely American.”

The play centers around the family's loss of eldest son Henry and competing perceptions of who is to blame for his downward spiral into a culture of drugs and dangerous radicalism. Leaming utilized the The FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in casting Lucy Lavely as Brooke, the middle child whose memoir is the subject of the family's Christmas drama, which occurs while they are reunited over the holiday.


Lucy Lavely and J. Kenneth Campbell

photo by Gary W. Sweetman

Lavely's remarkable stage presence and incredibly raw and affecting performance carry the production to enormous heights. Playing a disturbed young writer who's already suffered a crippling mental breakdown in her twenties, Lavely endows the character with gripping anxiety over her need to confront the loss of her brother through the book, despite what she knows it will do to her parents – and perhaps even because of it.

J. Kenneth Campbell plays Lyman, her ex-actor father who went on to become a GOP heavyweight in the Reagan era, even serving as an ambassador to some unspecified country. Campbell's sturdy performance balances the intensity of the characters, while Lyman ultimately serves as the conscience of the story.

As his wife Polly, Lauren Klein, who was Stockard Channing's understudy in the Broadway production, gives a commanding performance as the fiery, Texas-bred matriarch whose efforts to curb weakness results in parenting that ranges from tough love to near-sadism. Klein owns the part, delivering one of the most believable characters in recent memory.

Lucy Lavely and Carolyn Michel

photo by Gary W. Sweetman

Lemming also tapped the Conservatory for the part of Brooke's brother Henry, a slick, low-brow television producer who serves as something of a designated arbitrator in nearly every family quarrel. Benjamin Williamson rises to the role with a solid performance, despite seeming to appear much younger than the character's intended age. 

Aunt Silda, Polly's dysfunctionally-alcoholic sister, who is forever in the wings waiting to stir the pot, is played by the talented Carolyn Michel, who graces the hippie aunt with enough moxie not to crumble under the weighty presence of Polly's larger than life, conservative debutante of a character.

The play is set in a much-maligned Palm Springs, where the parents retired to after the sun set on their glamorous Hollywood lifestyle. Judy Gailen's expansive set of the home's mountain-view living room is indeed breathtaking. One can almost feel the dry, cool evening air as the light dims.

I found Other Desert Cities to be one of the best area productions I've seen in the last few years, a rare and wonderful moment when a masterful work is given its full just due this far from a Broadway stage. Fans of contemporary dramas will not want to miss this excellent production, which runs through February 27 in the Mertz Theater at the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts, located on the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art property. For ticket and showtime information, visit Asolo's website.


photo by Gary W. Sweetman


Dennis Maley is TBT's editor and featured political columnist. His regular column appears every Thursday and Sunday. He occasionally reviews local theater purely out of love for the art form and claims no particular expertise beyond his considerable experience as an audience member. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. He can be reached at can also follow Dennis on Facebook.

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