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Emotions run deep in the ‘Desert’ at the Goodman



When: Through Feb. 17

Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25-$86

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Run time: 2 hours 25 minutes
with one intermission

Updated: February 24, 2013 6:06AM

The first terrorist attacks in New York did not occur at the World Trade Center. Back in 1970, some homegrown terrorists — a collection of delusional rich kid “revolutionaries” — blew themselves up as they were working on a bomb in the basement of a posh townhouse in Greenwich Village.

It was far from the only such incident during that period, but it occurred just a few blocks from the Joffrey Ballet School, where I happened to be taking classes. And the event came racing back to mind Sunday night as I watched the Goodman Theatre production of “Other Desert Cities,” Jon Robin Baitz’s fascinating and often surprising meditation on American politics from the late 1960s until Christmas eve of 2004, by which time George W. Bush had been elected to his second term as president.

Baitz’s play, supremely well realized by director Henry Wishcamper, is set on the West coast — in Palm Springs, Ca., the sun-bleached preserve of Lyman Wyeth (Chelcie Ross, ideally tall, ambling and understated), and his adored wife, Polly (Tony Award-winning Deanna Dunagan, a brunette dead-ringer for Nancy Reagan, with the force of a fire-breathing dragon). Fervent, wealthy Republicans, with Hollywood history and political ties to the Reagans and their pals, the two are tightly bound to each other. They also are true believers of the right — for reasons as much personal as political — convinced that America began to unravel amid the sex, drugs and radical left politics of the 1960s.

The precise nature of that unraveling is slowly but painfully revealed when the Wyeths’ daughter, Brooke (the terrific Tracy Michelle Arnold, who taps directly into her character’s neuroses, narcissism and need), now a liberal-minded New Yorker with a history of severe depression, unveils her latest book. It’s a family “memoir” that attempts to come to terms with the apparent suicide, decades earlier, of her beloved brother, Henry — a self-styled radical implicated in the murder of a janitor at an Army recruiting station.

Clearly that chapter of the family’s history has long been tightly sealed — both suppressed and oppressive. And it has had an enormous impact on all the Wyeths, including Brooke’s willfully apolitical younger brother, Trip (John Hoogenaker, pitch-perfect as the embattled family peacemaker), and Polly’s lefty, alcoholic sister, Silda (a deftly acerbic, tragicomic Linda Kimbrough).

The Wyeths are big personalities (easily at home in set designer Thomas Lynch’s grand mid-century-modern, stone and glass ranch house), and they have the parent-child tensions to match. Loyalty and a circling of the wagons is of the essence for Polly, a Texan-born Jew who long ago reshaped herself to fit in, steeled herself to deal with every assault in life, and devoted herself to building a fortress around Lyman, a former movie star and ambassador.

Rage and neediness drive the recently divorced Brooke, as they do Silda. Trip, a reality TV producer, is hellbent on living in the present and trying not to stir controversy.

Baitz quite dazzlingly manages to flip every side of the personal and political coin here with a mix of vitriol, comedy, true anguish and equal opportunity hypocrisy. I will not disclose the play’s most crucial information, but suffice it to say it confirms that all politics are not just “local” but profoundly personal. They are the politics of family, of blood.

Note: This is not the first Goodman show to suffer from bad acoustics, with the actors at times close to inaudible. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

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