On Saturday, May 3, at 8 pm, Gallery Players will stage the Central Ohio premiere of Other Desert Cities, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist. The thought-provoking play, written by Jon Robin Baitz, debuted on Broadway in 2011 to critical acclaim. The story of a family in conflict unfolds on Christmas Eve 2004. Daughter Brooke Wyeth has returned home to Palm Springs after six years, dredging up the family’s tragic past and forcing them to come to terms with her soon-to-be-published memoir which threatens to expose long-held secrets.
Other Desert Cities’ Columbus debut will be directed by Columbus theater veteran and JCC member April Olt, whose recent credits include Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at SRO Theatre Company and Mauritius (a Theatre Roundtable winner for Outstanding Production and Excellence in Directing) at Curtain Players. Olt will lead a strong cast that includes Jill Taylor, who plays daughter, Brooke, and was last seen on the Gallery Players stage as Bernstein in November. Seasoned professional actress and original CATCO member Catherine Cryan Erney will star as Brooke’s mother, Polly Wyeth, while Tom Holliday, last seen in SRO Theater’s 2012 production of the female version of The Odd Couple, will play Brooke’s father, Lyman Wyeth. Jay Rittberger will play Brooke’s younger brother, Trip, and Cheryl Jacobs portrays the recovering alcoholic aunt, Silda.
The play draws it strengths from natural, well-written dialogue, relatable characters, and a well-paced, multi-layered plot that will leave audiences reeling by its conclusion. It was chosen by the Gallery Players committee because, while exploring themes of truth and identity, and their constant renegotiation, the play also raises questions about how Jewish identity, specifically that of sisters Polly and Silda, is shaped and diluted.
It’s an interesting intersection for the theater company that is a program of the Jewish Community Center, especially in light of recent reports— such as the 2013 Portrait of Jewish Columbus that was based on survey data collected by Jewish Policy and Action Research on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Federation, Columbus Jewish Foundation, and the Wexner Foundation— on the composition of the Jewish community in Columbus and nationally.
Jared Saltman, Gallery Players Managing and Artistic Director, noted, “It’s interesting— with the Portrait of Jewish Columbus data and the Pew Report having recently come out about people’s changing views on Jewish identity— here we have a glass bubble of another way that that is happening to us as Jews. In this, a political family has assimilated so severely in order to fit this very rigid idea of who they should be in order to climb the ladder. The children not only rail against the parents’ assimilation but also that they’ve gone so far right-wing that they’ve created a fiction of who they are.”
The play will premiere in conjunction with the annual Gaynor Lecture on May 19 at 7 pm. This year’s lecture will center on the book, ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. The play and the book both deal with the dynamics of interfaith families and the challenges of remaining Jewish amidst this growing social phenomenon. Author Schaefer Riley will be at the JCC for an interactive discussion of this dilemma facing interfaith families today.
Saltman said he and the committee which chose to produce the play were initially drawn to it because of how authentic and true-to-life it read. “We were looking for a really well-written show. And this was the best script we’d read since Gallery Players’ spring 2013 production of The Whipping Man. This is a play about family, identity, and what makes up that identity. Audiences will be able to relate because none of it feels forced. There’s a very natural progression to it. This is a story of a family that has completely abandoned their Jewish identity. It’s an extreme example, but I think you can identify with what you see on the stage through these extremes,” Saltman explained.
Antagonism and conflict are central to the play. The character of Aunt Silda, played by JCC member Cheryl Jacobs, adds yet another layer to the conflict. Jacobs looks forward to humanizing the role of Silda, a recovering addict, in her return to Gallery Players after her last performance in 2012’s Relatively Close. Jacobs works for Maryhaven, a social service agency providing a continuum of care for those suffering from addictive illness. Because her character has just returned from a stay in a rehabilitative facility similar to the one for which Jacobs works, she noted that her casting as Silda is almost a case of art imitating life.
Jacobs hopes to bring out Silda’s “truth” as an alcoholic. To that end, she sought the advice of the clinical supervisor and director of Maryhaven’s Women’s Center, an intensive six-month inpatient program for women with addictive illness and mental health issues. “Even though I see people in recovery every day, I don’t live it every day,” Jacobs explained.
But she learned about the various emotions and stages a recovering addict goes through in her work at Maryhaven. “A lot of times people are very angry, especially at family members who may have facilitated them going into rehab. This play is helping me, too, to see it from an emotional standpoint. I think I will have new understanding once we’re finished,” Jacobs explained of why she was attracted to the role.
Jacobs, who was raised in a Jewish family in New York, found Silda’s articulation of her sister Polly’s misappropriated conservative identity, as opposed to Silda’s liberal, Jewish identity, to be a particularly interesting aspect of the play. “Polly judges everybody and complains about fake-ness. But Polly’s the most fake one of all, and Silda calls her on it. ‘You have this false sense of who you are,’ she says. ‘You forget, we’re not Texans, we’re Jews,’” Jacobs paraphrased.
“The kids joke about going to the country club on Christmas, because to them, that’s what all half-Jews do. To them, Christmas is a universal holiday, and they don’t identify as one or the other. They’re aware that they’re part Jewish, but it’s not really a part of their lives. The family doesn’t reference it other than in jokes. I think there are a lot of families out there that are like that. I think there are families that identify as Jewish but may only do cultural things that are Jewish,” Jacobs concluded.
The play will be Director April Olt’s first turn directing for Gallery Players, but she brings much experience directing locally and nationally, after having received her MFA in Directing/Dramaturgy from Roosevelt University (Chicago College of Performing Arts). “I have always wanted to direct with Gallery Players. I knew after getting to page five that I would direct this play. The language, the character, and the story development all attracted me. I am also interested in the play’s arc and shifting allegiances,” said Olt.
Jill Taylor, who plays Brooke, was also first intrigued by Jon Robin Baitz’s script. “I liked that it was witty, smart and gut-wrenching all at the same time.” After appearing in last May’s Betsy’s New Car at Curtain Players Theater, she is eager to get back on the stage to give a strong, visceral performance. Her character is central to the play, delivering several emotional monologues throughout the performance. “As an actor, it’s such a great opportunity. I hope audiences come and enjoy it,” said Taylor.
For each of the actors, as for their characters, the story resonates differently, intoning different meaning, depending on the perspective of who’s telling it. Catherine Cryan Erney plays the family’s judgmental matriarch, Polly, who at one point in the play states, “I don’t like it when people pretend things are one thing and they’re actually clearly another.” While hypocrisy, inauthenticity, and pretension are qualities the children attribute to their staunchly Republican parents, Cryan Erney understands that her character believes with 100% certainty that she is being true to herself and her convictions.
“As difficult and challenging as she is with her daughter, Brooke, she doesn’t think she’s the villain. She sees herself as the hero, protecting her husband and children. From her point of view, she is doing the best she can. From the inside, each of these characters are being authentic to themselves. And it begs the question, what is the truth of any family? Like, in my own family, my grandmother was both a busybody and a sweet wonderful person and would do anything for you, but it all depended on which of my siblings was telling the story and looking at it from that point of view.”
Point of view is certainly a key aspect of the play, agreed Tom Holliday, who plays patriarch, Lyman Wyeth. “As the play evolves it shows that there are many shades to truth and many shades to what a given person’s view of the truth is. Over the course of the play, the moral high ground that any one character has is constantly shifting. There’s no one person who’s in the right and no one person in the wrong. And those roles even change throughout the play. That’s probably the reality of all of our family dynamics, and this play does a great job of portraying that,” said Holliday.
Amid the play’s more tense scenes, there are moments of levity, especially in the character of younger brother, Trip, played by Jay Rittberger. Rittberger has much acting experience, especially in musical theater, including Gallery Players’ Parade and Red Herring’s Assassins. His character serves to even out the play’s tense moments with the comic shenanigans of a little brother. “I’m excited by the challenge of balancing the comic relief … and the intense dramatics of everybody else. Trip, at moments, gives the audience a chance to breathe,” said Rittberger.
“It’s going to be a really riveting show,” added Cryan Erney. While the intriguing play explores universal themes, she pointed out that its reliance on strong, female performances is unusual. “[In this play] there are more women on the stage than men, and that is not common. [In the theater world,] there are seven roles for men for every three women’s roles. This play has real meat for women to get into. It offers wonderful roles for women.”
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus invites audiences to come together in its Roth/Resler Theater at 1125 College Avenue, Columbus, OH 43209. Performances will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday May 3, 2:30 p.m., Sunday May 4, 7:30 p.m. Thursday May 8. 8 p.m. Saturday May 10, 2:30 p.m. Sunday May 11, 7:30 p.m. Thursday May 15, 8 p.m. Saturday May 17, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday May 18. Tickets cost $20, $18 for senior citizens, $15 for JCC members; $13 for senior members; $10 for children (17 years and under) or students with valid ID, and $10 per ticket for groups of 10 or more. To order tickets, visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org or call the Gallery Players Box Office at 614-231-2731.