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Review: 'Other Desert Cities' tells a relevant story with plenty of emotion to spare

An air of nostalgia and quiet excitement filled Eugene’s Very Little Theatre Friday night. Audience members mingled and sipped free coffee as the local community theatre company prepared to open their production of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities.

The atmosphere of the VLT is simple and quaint, with poster tributes to past seasons and goofy dated pictures adorning the walls. As I took my seat, I braced myself for an evening of charming and possibly saccharine tributes to “the old days.”

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Other Desert Cities is a brilliantly written Tony-nominated script following a dynamic, dysfunctional family as they to come to terms with a long-repressed tragedy one Christmas Eve. From the first scene, challenging topics like politics, grief and mental illness were brought to the table with dark comedy and raw emotion. Sharp one-liners were sprinkled between emotional monologues, and the overall effect was a mesmerizing balance of the entertaining and the deeply relatable.

The actors skillfully tackled the difficult script. Actress Christine Hanks shone as haughty, yet loving matriarch Polly Wyeth, and VLT veteran Bill Campbell was equally excellent: his portrayal of Polly’s husband, Lyman, was haunting and natural.

Their characters – the kind of people who throw fundraisers for a living and refer to former President Ronald Reagan as “Ronnie” – were at once hilarious, frightening and very human. The rest of the cast seemed to embrace their characters with equal passion, though some body language felt forced, especially in Brett French’s Tripp Wyeth. A few line slips were apparent as well, especially in the first act, but they were rare enough to be written off as opening night jitters.

Overall, the performance was well acted and directed. At times, the dialogue moved a touch too slow; other times, the fast-paced banter was mesmerizing. People in the seats around me occasionally cringed at the heavy, emotional material. But by the end of the play, the honesty behind it redeemed any discomfort. Other Desert Cities made me think, and in my opinion, that’s a mark of great theatre. Though the VLT’s target demographic is definitely a few generations older than your average University of Oregon student, this play felt relevant and its message transcends barriers of age, ideology, and background. Other Desert Cities wasn’t perfect, but it was moving, funny and, ultimately, thoughtful. If you’re looking for a night of theatre in Eugene, there’s not much more you could desire.

Other Desert Cities runs January 17-18, 22-25, and 29-31. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Thurs-Sat and Sunday matinees are at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $17; Thursdays are $12.

Visit the Very Little Theatre website for more information.

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Rachel Benner

Rachel Benner

Rachel is a Theatre writer for the Arts and Culture Desk.