by Beki Pineda

OTHER DESERT CITIES – Written by Jon Robin Baitz; Directed by Sheila Ivy Traister. Produced by Cherry Creek Theatre (Presented at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center’s Pluss Theatre, 350 South Dahlia, Denver) through April 28. Tickets available at 303-800-6578 or cherrycreektheatre.org.

I have to start with the actors on this one, because it is such a kickass, perfectly cast group of people. Brooke, the daughter and lynchpin of the story, is touchingly played by a newcomer to Denver with a bright future in local productions ahead of her. Lilia Vassileva looks like a young (pre-Botox) Renee Zellweger and acts like Meryl Streep. She is passionate yet insecure, determined but deterred, self-involved yet empathetic. And that’s just the first ten minutes. She has a great cynical but loving relationship with her brother, is terrified by her mother, and leans on her father more than she realizes. Trip, the brother, comes to life in the able hands of Chas Lederer who has taken off his dancing shoes to play a serious role. He is loving without buying into the bullshit of his family; he understands and has grown comfortable with his own shortcomings and lack of ambition.

The family reunion in this setting would not be complete without the strong presence of Mom Polly  and Dad Lyman, played by Abby Apple Boes and Michael McNeill. Lyman is the epitome of the old Western actor and steadfast GOP stalwart that he plays. Michael is handsome enough to have been in the movies, moves with a kind of steady cowboy pacing, and provides the rock upon which the family has been built. Polly is magnificent in her Mama Bear defense of her family and its secrets. Abby’s steely demeanor and cold-blooded threats are hard to understand until you know the back story. She will disown her daughter before displaying their family life to scrutiny. Her sister Silda is played with sloppy sentimentality by the charming Pam Clifton who channels her Holly Pharme from MURDER MOST FOWL. But watch her in the scenes where she is not speaking and you will see genuine hurt for what her family is going through and realistic cynicism for what she doesn’t understand.

Lay this group of actors in on top of a touching and mysterious script and you’ve got an exciting theatre evening. Brooke and Trip have come home for the holidays but Brooke has an ulterior motive. She is about to reveal the new book she has written – after a long writer’s block and a stay in a rehab center – to her parents. Much to their dismay, the subject of the book is about a long (they hoped) dead event involving a third child some twenty years ago. This shameful event threw their family into chaos, threatened their livelihood and reputation, and took a long time for their conservative friends to forget. Now it’s all going to be dredged up again . . . because apparently it’s the only story that Brooke can think of to write about. Polly is, of course, furious, Lyman is hurt, Silda is gleefully revengeful, and Trip just wants out of the whole drama. You bear witness to the disintegration of a family and then you learn why. No spoilers here – go see it to learn the answers.

Once again, the tech team has pulled together a top notch environment to enhance the work of the actors. Mike Grittner’s  hacienda has walls of desert rock in warm sand colors with teal pops of color in the pillows and dressing. It’s just the kind of room that Polly would have put together with her designer with modern furniture and a well stocked bar. Kelly Gregson’s casual wear for at home and dressed up clothes for going out to dinner were spot on. Star Pytel’s lighting kept the actors in focus and highlighted while creating mood and atmosphere. Of course, the whole production was created by director Sheila Ivy Traister whose command of the material and direction of the actors brought the story to life most forcefully. She created a realistic picture of a family in crisis whose love for one another almost doesn’t save them.

This is the third time I’ve seen this show and I still have an issue with the way it ends. See for yourself and you’ll know what I mean.

A WOW factor of 9!!