Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz
You may be familiar with Jon Robin Baitz as a screenwriter and television producer of Brothers and Sisters and the new NBC production of The Slap. He’s also a playwright and this play, Other Desert Cities, saw him nominated for a Pulitzer drama prize. We saw the play over the weekend, having read it and been impressed by it before.
So, what do you value most in life? Your friends and associates? Your standing in the community? Your career? Your family and children? Who comes first in your life when faced with a crisis; or is it possible to have it all?
Baitz keeps us wondering until the very end which matters more to the Wyeth family, an entertainment industry bunch, the senior of which are staunch conservatives with ties to the Regans and others, as well as stints in high-level public service. Their oldest child, Henry, ran with a radical lefty crowd, causing them grief, and then participated in a bombing. The family story is that they turned Henry away. He ran to Canada, but in Seattle despair overtook him and he jumped from a ferry, drowning.
Brooke, the middle child, was always closest to Henry. His death and the way her parents treated him, refusing to help him, essentially disowning him, tore her apart. A promising writer with a successful first book, she broke down. Living on the East coast, she hasn’t seen her family in years. She’s returning Christmas Eve not to celebrate with them but to give them a look at the manuscript of her new book, a memoir featuring Henry. This sets off renewed acrimony that results in her parents revealing a long-held secret.
For those of you who have not seen or read the play, you will not want to go beyond this point as I discuss the reveal that occurs at the end of the play. Why not read the play and then see if you agree with my comments? Print editions are available.
When Henry came to his parents those long years ago, they did not turn him away. Polly, his mother, provided him with means and drove him to Canada herself. Henry is still living, though his parents cannot communicate with him. Nor could they ever tell anyone he was in Canada. The government continues to check in with them once a year to learn if they have heard from him. They decided not to tell Brooke at the time because of her youth and emotional instability. And, then, the time never presented itself, until Brooke delivered the manuscript on Christmas Eve.
In the end, Baitz leaves you with many things to mull over. Which is stronger, devotion to a rigid ideological belief or the love you have for a child, no matter how difficult, recalcitrant, or ideologically opposite to you? In the case of the Wyeth’s, they chose to save their son. They chose family over ideology.
But, wait. They did it in a way that crippled Brooke for life and that preserved their standing with their friends. They could have gone to the police with Henry, stood by him, and supported him. You might defend them by arguing they wanted to spare Henry the harsh glare of the media and imprisonment, possibly for life. But this could have caused them to lose their standing among their conservative friends. Perhaps, too, it would have damaged their careers. So, perhaps a pyrrhic victory of sorts for family over ideology. w/c