When veteran director Rusty Wilson checked in with the cast that would portray an intellectual and well-healed clan in habitual denial disguised by intimate and witty barbs and looks that don’t match tones, he gave them an assignment.
The edict was not simply to learn your lines for the play “Other Desert Cities,” but to write to one another until they began rehearsals. When they met up a week ago, they would then behave as their characters and engage in tennis matches, bocce and other family niceties.
But that’s why they call them professionals.
With less than two weeks until opening night Tuesday, July 2, Wilson said the innovative approach is paying off. The cast members embody their characters, and they move with sinews, synchronicity and sarcasm as a family in dysfunction should.
“The proof will be in the pudding,” Wilson said. “But this group has been so willing and game to get it done.”
Wilson is one of the founders of Company of Fools in Richmond, Va., who came to Hailey by invitation from core company artists Denise Simone and John Glenn.
Despite the clever rehearsal strategy, Wilson insists he’s not a clever guy.
“I gravitate to less clever plays,” he admitted. “This is a different kind of play for me. I loved the style of writing. It seemed overtly clever, and I thought I’d like a different challenge.”
For Keith Moore and Patsy Wygle, it meant acting like in-laws rather than the long marrieds they are. Moore’s stage wife, his real wife’s character’s sister, is Simone. And brother and sister played by Hanna Cheek and Adrian Rieder are summer roommates for the show’s run.
“We’re beginning to fight like real siblings,” Rieder joked.
The story begins when Brooke Wyeth (Cheek) arrives at her parents’ luxe Palm Springs, Calif., abode on Christmas Eve with the manuscript of her tell-all memoir in tow, her license to change history.
She unearths a devastating family secret that throws her parents (Moore and Simone as stoic actor-turned-politician Lyman, about whom Moore noted, “they don’t call him ambassador for nothing,” and fierce Polly, who Simone said “while petite, there is nothing small about”) into a panic and threatens to rip the clan apart.
The dialogue is crisp and painfully funny in as stark a contrast to the truth as is their desert habitat to the definition of paradise.
I lived there myself in my 30s, making more money than ever for the least rewarding work ever. Owning a condo in a tony enclave surrounded by wealthy retirees and celebrities, I can tell you that they don’t mention how much sand there will be in your every grain of existence—yours or your maid’s—it’s not in the real estate guide. And while some adapt well to the climate, others appear to be straining against the Santa Ana winds to find the bliss in the unnatural setting. I never met so many fine and interesting people on disability for mental health issues who fled to the desert to “heal.”
And as Brooke summarizes in the opening moments when the audience discovers there was another sibling, now dead, “Just because you moved to the desert does not mean that anybody with a computer couldn’t find out what happened with this family in a matter of moments. It’s part of who we are, we can’t just pretend it never happened.”
All of that will be showcased in a set that anyone who has even had a virtual tour of the story locale will recognize as the retro desert chic that probably hasn’t changed since it was the “in” décor. Set designer Joe Lavigne, sound designer Ted Macklin and stage manager K.O. Ogilvie create a cold but tasteful space, where the fireplace is probably lit for ambience a few times a year.
Wygle’s character is fresh out of rehab, a popular résumé item for desert dwellers, and her character, Silda, has been primed to piece together the patterns that brought her there after five years of sobriety.
“She hates it but it’s where she needs to be right now,” Wygle said. “Her secret is something that drives her, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to her. She’s hanging on to these people like a life raft.”
All the cast members agreed that the story is a journey that gives no clue as to how it will end, but whisks the audience along.
“This will be a play that people talk about later,” Simone said.
Wilson added, “There are ethical issues that people are going to want to talk about.”