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The Studio Players mounts a production of the family comedy/drama “Other Desert Cities”

Other Desert Cities Rehearsal 11 - Lyman and Polly discuss how to handle Brooke's memoir.jpg
Tom Hall, WGCU
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In this scene from The Studio Players' production of "Other Desert Cities" Polly and Lyman Wyeth (played by Casey Cobb and Stan Zawatsky) discuss how to handle the new memoir published by their dauther Brooke (played by Gerrie Benzing).

The 2022 holiday season is underway on local theater stages, but The Studio Players in Naples is bucking tradition with its production of a multi-award winning family comedy/drama.

In Jon Robin Baitz’ “Other Desert Cities,” the kids of the Wyeth family have come home to celebrate Christmas with mom, dad and crazy Aunt Silda, but this isn’t your typical feel-good holiday reunion.

You have Reagan Republican parents and very left-leaning relatives all tied up in the same house on Christmas Eve 2004,” explains Director Paula Keenan.

“The daughter has written a book, and in that she covers her oldest brother’s suicide. It’s not a happy time for Christmas Eve. This is not a Currier & Ives Christmas, okay?”

Written in 2011, “Other Desert Cities” enjoyed a successful Broadway run and seven-month stint at Lincoln Center. Since then, it has been widely produced around the country in regional and community theaters. Among its accolades are the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play and five Tony Award nominations. It was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The latter distinction is attributable in large measure to Jon Robin Baitz’ scintillating script, which features complex, multi-faceted and delightfully flawed characters who use witty repartee to carve each other up like the proverbial Christmas goose.

“The language is just so important, and the playwright assumes that you know what he’s talking about,” said Keenan.

“He’s not afraid to use big words and big concepts, and that’s exciting …. The audience won’t enjoy the situation, but they will enjoy the bantering back and forth because this is not “Death of a Salesman.” This is not dragging you through the depths of despair. There is, there is wit; That is what the show is very good about is showing the wit of all these people, and I think the audience will like that.”

Every character gets in on the act with pithy zingers and snarky rejoinders. In fact one reviewer has described the entire first act as a “one-liner palooza.”

At the heart of the Wyeths’ familial conflict and tension, at least on the surface, is politics. Parents Polly and Lyman are not just conservative Republicans, they were part of Ronald Reagan’s inner circle. Lyman was a B-list matinee idol who was appointed by the President first as an ambassador and later as GOP chair.

Other Desert Cities Rehearsal 01 - Casey Cobb as Polly Wyeth.jpg
Tom Hall, WGCU
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Casey Cobbs as Polly Wyeth in The Studio Players' production of "Other Desert Cities"

“Polly Wyeth is an old guard Republican from the Nancy Reagan, Ronnie Reagan era,” says actor Casey Cobb of her character. “At one point she’ll say that Nancy Reagan was like a big sister to her. So they’re in that crowd. They came to Palm Springs, so they’re all part of that circle of Republicans who are very specific characters and very kind of snooty.”

But to Polly and Lyman’s bewilderment and chagrin, their children, Brooke and Trip, are – perish the thought – Democrats, and Polly’s live-in sister, Silda, is a wild-eyed liberal. They’re as polarized insularly as the nation is at large, but in “Other Desert Cities,” the audience experiences the dysfunction within the confines and context of a single family, which delights Gerrie Benzing (who plays the role of Brooke) to no end.

Other Desert Cities Rehearsal 08 - Betsy Greenblatt is wild-eyed liberal Aunt Silda.jpg
Tom Hall, WGCU
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Betsy Greenblatt plays the role of Aunt Silda in The Studio Players' production of "Other Desert Cities"

When I read [the script], I felt like I felt like it was a reflection of modern times …. The author has done an amazing job of showing the schism that exists, but this is all within the context of a family, and I imagine there are families like that right now, people who can’t agree at all politically but they still love each other. So it’s so topical,” said Benzing.

While there are certainly lessons that can be extrapolated from the Wyeth family’s political clashes, at the heart of this family drama is the threat and ultimate crumbling of Polly and Lyman’s carefully constructed façade as upper-crust political influencers; where appearance is everything and the truth is a commodity rather than an absolute.

In “Other Desert Cities,” the threat comes in the form of a memoir that daughter Brooke has penned and which is about to come out in serial form in “The New Yorker.” In it, Brooke delves into her older brother’s suicide following his involvement in an anti-war protest that culminated in the bombing of a military recruitment center. A homeless Vietnam War veteran died after being horrifically burned.

Other Desert Cities Rehearsal 06 - Daniel Cancio and Gerrie Benzing share lighter moment as siblings Trip and Brooke.jpg
Tom Hall, WGCU
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Daniel Cancio and Gerrie Benzing play brother and sister Trip and Brooke in The Studio Players' production of "Other Desert Cities"

However, it’s not just that their son’s involvement in the bombing and subsequent suicide is an embarrassment in the political circles in which they run, the memoir is a very public affirmation that when it came to parenting, the Wyeths fell well short of the ideal American family that they and their contemporaries self-righteously promoted to the rest of the country.

“[Polly is] ultra-protective of her dead son’s memory,” notes Casey Cobb. “And she knows she screwed up with that son. She knows she’s screwed up with her children in general, maybe because of her attitude, that high-and-mighty attitude. If they didn’t fit into that form of how she felt of how life should be, well then that was it.”

Other Desert Cities Rehearsal 04 - Gerrie Benzing as daughter Brooke.jpg
Tom Hall, WGCU
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Gerri Benzing in the role of Brooke Wyeth in The Studio Players' production of "Other Desert Cities"

Henry’s suicide devastated little sister Brooke. They were best friends, and following his death her life devolved into depression and despondency, resulting in a breakdown and treatment. Now she’s clawed her way back to normalcy by crafting a memoir that has finally allowed her to come to terms with her brother’s death and her parents’ culpability for Henry’s political views and involvement in the anti-war protest that led to his suicide.

It’s a very meaty role that plays to Benzing’s strengths.

“I love these types of roles,” gushes Benzing. “My favorite roles are where characters go through emotional journeys, but the amazing thing about this play is you don’t get that many opportunities as an actor to do a show that has so much… wonderful words in it, you know? I love all shows. I love musicals. I love comedies, but my heart is in the drama. This is both a comedy and a drama. There are so many funny lines, but there’s so much emotion, and I just love that. It’s my favorite thing.”

The emotion comes in many forms and from numerous sources. While there’s conflict and tension between all the characters, Brooke’s fractured relationship with her mother is front and center.

“They’re so much alike and they just won’t back down and they have so much emotion and it just builds and builds and builds,” Benzing observes.

“There are times it seems like they just hate each other, but they don’t because they love each other, but it’s this constant back and forth. They just basically say the… They blurt out these really harsh, cruel things to each other, but it’s so therapeutic the way they do it. There are these wonderful scenes where they’re both baring their hearts.”

That emotion explodes during the big reveal in Act Two.

“I think the final scenes of the play are overwhelming,” Benzing divulges.

“I’m in the play and I end up crying real tears… it’s not acting tears, it’s real tears as I’m listening to when you discover what really happened.”

Catharsis, by definition, is always satisfying, but here, what’s especially refreshing is this family’s ability to finally see, accept and love each other for who they really are rather than the fiction they’ve projected for decades to the outside world and each other.

That said, Benzing hastens to remind that “Other Desert Cities” is also a comedy.

“There’s a lot of funny in this play. I don’t want people to be scared away thinking it’s just all emotion. Sometimes people are like ‘I don’t know if I want to go to a heavy play.’ This play is so funny, but it’s got the underlying emotion, which makes the funny parts pop.”

In addition to Casey Cobb and Gerrie Benzing, the cast includes Stan Zawatsky as the dignified and polished Lyman Wyeth, Daniel Cancio as little brother Trip and Betsy Greenblatt as the uncensored and unabashedly progressive Aunt Silda.

“Other Desert Cities” performs in the Joan Jenks Auditorium at Golden Gate Community Center Nov. 25 – Dec. 18. Please go here for play dates, times and ticket information.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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