LOU'S VIEWS: Dramatically different plays

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Lou Harry

One of the truths of theater is that audiences are rarely seeing the definitive production.

A play is tempered by the sensibilities and skills of its cast, director and design team as well as the resources available. This is true even for a seemingly straightforward family-in-crisis play such as “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz (at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through April 5) or a classic such as Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” (at the Indy Fringe Building through March 23 courtesy of Acting Up Productions).

Both plays feature family members arriving to upset the status quo. Both feature some strong performances. Both are very much worth seeing.

The less-familiar, “Other Desert Cities,” concerns a deeply troubled woman visiting her parents for Christmas with a manuscript in tow. The manuscript is an accepted-for-publication literary tell-all about her parents (friends of the Reagans), the loss of their radicalized son, and the impact of the trauma on the family.

ae-maindesertcities-15col.jpg Lawrence Pressman and Paige Lindsey White share a loving father/daughter moment amid the family conflict in “Other Desert Cities” by Jon Robin Baitz. (Photo courtesy of Zach Rosing)

Anyone seeing only the IRT take—co-produced with Arizona Theatre Company—might have a different view on the piece than someone who saw only the Broadway version. Having seen both, I appreciate the subtle ways in which director James Still and his team balanced this family equation differently at the IRT.

In New York, with Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as the parents, sympathy rested stronger with daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel). With her bemused laugh and head-shaking smile, you wondered just how much she was going to be able to take. Here, the daughter (Paige Lindsey White) seems further removed from reality from the get-go. Her distanced demeanor seems to indicate that her relationship with her parents is already a lost cause.

It’s a legitimate choice, but its impact on the play is to call into question very early her perception of the incidents she wrote about. (Note to the two guys grumbling outside the theater: Just because a character criticizes the politics of her parents doesn’t mean the play endorses her view. Did you shut off completely before the second act?)

In part by making Brooke more extreme while softening parents Polly (Anne Allgood) and Lyman (Lawrence Pressman), son Trip—a character I barely remember from the New York production—becomes central to the action. Sympathetic, conflicted and seeming to see himself as a family afterthought, his attempts at peacemaking become core to the play. Trip is played by Will Mobley, in his IRT debut, an actor I hope we see more from.

What I’d really like to do is discuss the ending. Not just the final scene, but the very last moment of the play. In New York, that moment—or my perception of it—felt exactly right for the show. However, nobody I’ve talked to since who has seen the play, here or elsewhere, felt quite the same thing. As someone cautious about spoilers, though, I’ll keep quiet here. (Shoot me a note at lharry@ibj.com if you’ve seen the play and want to discuss the ending.)

Another shift in the theatrical equation seems to happen in Acting Up’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In this case, that’s thanks to an outstanding, nuanced performance by Lisa Ermel and a clear production that avoids making a bold, specific statement about the play itself.

ae-streetcar-1col.jpg Stanley (Chris Saunders) faces off with wife Stella (Lisa Ermel) in Acting Up’s “A Streecar Named Desire.” (Photo courtesy of Acting Up Productions)

Stella, you may recall if you saw the film or a previous production, is caught in the middle of the battle between her troubled sister, Blanche, and her brutish husband, Stanley. Not a long-suffering plain Jane, Ermel’s Stella is as passionate about her husband as he is about her. She loves her sister but she also knows her sister. She’s amused and afraid, comfortable and questioning—a complex, intense, sometimes not-so-bright, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood woman.

No slight intended to the rest of the company, but in Ermel’s hands, the tragedy this time doesn’t seem to be about the destruction of fragile Blanche but, rather, the ripping apart of her sister. Her final cry of anguish won’t soon be forgotten.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.


  • Totally agree about Other Desert Cities
    Having seen the off-Broadway and Broadway casts, I understand the point you're making about shifting the dynamic in the family relationships with IRT's interpretation. Brooke's dazed and bug-eyed looks in the opening scene let me know immediately that this was going to be a different evening at the theatre. While a plausible interpretation, I don't think it serves the overall play well, and as a result, the second act suffers. Will Mobley indeed became more of a center, and he performed the role admirably. But in the end (and particularly, at the end) the play's message and meaning falls short in this production's interpretation and characterization of the daughter's role and persona. This should have been a home run for the IRT. Instead it ends up being a solid sprint to third base with no chance of getting home for most theatre-goers.

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Only half a million TV Viewers? And thats an increase? I knew Indycar was struggling but I didn't know it was that bad. Hell, if NASCAR hits 5 Million viewers everyone starts freaking out saying its going down hill. It has a long way to before Indycar even hits NASCAR's bad days.

  2. IU has been talking that line for years with no real progress even with the last Dean, Dr. Brater. Why will an outsider, Dr. Hess, make a difference? With no proof of additional resources (cash in the bank), and a concrete plan to move an academic model that has been outdated for decades with a faculty complacent with tenure and inertia, I can count on IU to remain the same during the tenure of Dr. Hess. One ought to look to Purdue and Notre Dame for change and innovation. It is just too bad that both of those schools do not have their own medical school. Competition might wake up IU. My guess is, that even with those additions to our State, IU will remain in its own little world squandering our State's tax dollars. Why would any donor want to contribute to IU with its track record? What is its strategy to deal with the physician shortage for our State? New leadership will not be enough for us to expect any change.

  3. How do you think the Bridges got approved? I spent a couple days researching PAC's and individual contributions to some city council members during that time. My printouts were inches thick on the two I concentrated on. Finally gave up. Was disgusted with all the donations, and who they were from. Would have taken me days and days to compile a complete list. Tried to give it to the Star reporter, but he thought it was all just fine. (and apparently he was treated well himself) He ended up being laid off or fired though. And then of course, there was land donated to the dad's club, or city, as a partial payoff. All done in the shining example of "charity." No, none of these contributions are a coincidence.

  4. I agree what kind of help or if any will be there for Dr. Ley's patients. I was a patient myself.

  5. What about the hundreds of patients who sought this doctor for the right reasons, to quit drugs. what option do these patients now have, experience horrible withdrawl or return to heroin?? those are the choices. what about the children of these former addicts who's parent(s) WILL not b able to maintain their job, for @ least 2 weeks.. There needs to b an emergency clinic opened for these patients.