It’s been a decade since “Other Desert Cities” debuted off-Broadway, but the play, about a family divided by politics and a long-held secret, might be even more relevant today.
“It’s so timely, in so many ways,” said Kathie O’Brien, the co-director (with Arlee Olson) of the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company production of Jon Robin Baitz’s family drama. “Politics right now seems to be so divisive, more so than it was in my parents’ time.”
Added Olson: “One of the things that the play tries to get to is that we all have different ways of wanting to solve things, but we can still be very good, loving people underneath.”
“Other Desert Cities,” which can be viewed Saturday, Aug. 28 and Sunday, Aug. 29, takes place around Christmas Eve 2004 and is almost entirely set in the living room of Polly and Lyman Wyeth (Johanna Spencer and Michael Wren) in Palm Springs, California. Daughter Brooke (Diane Slamp), home for the holidays, is a writer who’s about to publish a memoir that includes a tragic event in the family’s history.
“Built with gleaming dialogue, tantalizing hints of a dangerous mystery and a structural care that brings to mind the heyday of Lillian Hellman, ‘Cities’ has the appeal of a Broadway hit from another age,” Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote in a 2011 rave.
But if it weren’t for the COVID pandemic, O’Brien and Olson might have been directing another play entirely. O’Brien originally pitched “Third,” Wendy Wasserstein’s last play, to the Readers’ Theatre.
The problem was that the streaming rights to “Third” weren’t available – and since theaters across the country had shuttered their doors to live audiences, that meant “Third” was off the table.
That’s when O’Brien’s daughter, Kasey, suggested “Other Desert Cities.”
O’Brien had seen the show in Seattle and had loved it. She pitched it as a replacement, and reached out to Olson, a Readers’ Theatre colleague, to co-direct. Although she has enjoyed a long career in community theater, O’Brien never had directed a show before — and she had the sense, with COVID still very much a factor, that she wanted a trusted ally by her side. “We seem to have this very copasetic relationship in terms of our thought processes, and we have a very open communications style. So we thought, well, this might work.”
One other factor weighed on O’Brien: “With the idea that we might be filming instead of having a live production, I felt like I really wanted Arlee. … Arlee was very excited about having the opportunity to work in a film situation whereas I was hoping — hoping — that we’d be (live) because I just love the live theater.”
Added Olson: “I just like to learn new things. This was a whole new experience.”
O’Brien’s instincts about how COVID might reshape the production turned out to be correct: Rehearsals started in person, without masks, at the Majestic for the first week or so. Then, as the delta variant took hold throughout Oregon, word came that the actors needed to start wearing plastic masks. The plastic masks stayed on during the live performances — which, as O’Brien suspected would happen, were filmed on the Majestic’s stage and edited (by Chad Howard) into the version that streams this weekend.
O’Brien said the cast took it all in stride: “They were such troupers. I never heard a complaint, not once. They were all just wonderful and I know it was not comfortable. … I just finished watching the final version, and it’s true: After a while, you don’t even realize that they’re wearing a mask.” (Michaela Lonning and Ryan McWayne round out the five-person cast.)
O’Brien and Olson still took steps to re-create, to the extent possible, the experience of watching the show live — although having four separate camera angles to choose from offered options.
“We were trying to have a good balance between sometimes … showing the camera that shows the whole stage and sometimes showing cameras that are focusing in on things, the way you do when you’re in the audience,” Olson said.
In assembling their cast, O’Brien and Olson kept in mind that “Other Desert Cities,” at its heart, is about a family. “We were really looking for a family, for a group of people that could sell the family, could be a family,” O’Brien said.
And that’s how O’Brien and Olson hope audiences this weekend experience the show:
“I really do hope people see this not alone, but with family, with friends, with people they can talk to afterward,” Olson said. “Because I think everyone will get something slightly different” out of the show.
Added O’Brien: “And I think most people will be able to relate to each character” — even those of different political stripes. “I hope this show helps people to be able to listen.”
Olson finished the thought: “We’re not going to solve anything by not talking with each other.”
IF YOU WATCH What: “Other Desert Cities,” by Jon Robin Baitz, the August production of the Majestic Readers’ Theater Company.
When: Saturday, Aug. 28 and Sunday, Aug. 29.
How much: Tickets, which allow you to view the production any time over the weekend, are $10, $15 and $20. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.
Cast and crew: The cast includes Diane Slamp, Johanna Spencer, Michael Wren, Michaela Lonning and Ryan McWayne. The drama is directed by Kathie O’Brien and Arlee Olson.