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Review: On Theater: A dark and tense family Christmas unfolds in ‘Other Desert Cities’

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Westminster Community Playhouse presents “Other Desert Cities” with a closing performance at 2 p.m. Sunday.
(Courtesy of Westminster Community Playhouse)

The tension in the air at the Westminster Community Playhouse is so thick you could cut it with the proverbial knife — if, by chance, you were packing a machete.

Few stage productions have depicted such steely resolve and familial angst as “Other Desert Cities,” which winds up its brief engagement this weekend. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz has created a drama that would make “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” seem as bland as a TV sitcom.

The play’s five characters, all members of the fractious Wyeth family, convene on the day before Christmas and soon stand at odds over the imminent publication of a book by the daughter that will deal harshly with her parents’ complicity in the suicide of her older brother.

Introductions are in order. Brooke Wyeth, a fragile but determined young woman a few years out of rehab, is the writer whose philosophical differences with mom and dad couldn’t be more pronounced.

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He’s a onetime B movie actor (who died a lot on screen) and devout Republican who later became an ambassador under President Reagan. She loyally spouts the party line, makes offhand Nancy Reagan references and possibly drinks a bit too much.

Added to the mix are younger son Tripp, a sardonic reality show producer whose sarcastic nature reflects the most accurate order of things, and Mom’s recovering alcoholic sister Silda, ironically the warmest character of the lot.

Under the painstaking direction of Lenore Stjerne, who specializes in hefty drama, all five deliver superior performances, as completely realized as you’d find on a professional stage. First among equals is Cassidy McMillan, simply brilliant as the determined author whose steely demeanor sets the circuitous plot in motion. Her inner vulnerability is well camouflaged until the play’s most crucial moment.

Veteran actor John Parker is a powerful presence as Lyman, the father, whose frequent eruptions and right-wing rants disrupt the already unsettled atmosphere. As his more sedate wife, Kimberly Wooldridge gradually gains momentum and inebriation, building toward an explosive climax.

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Tempering the rancid air around him, Miller Daurey as the caustic son puts things in perspective with his barbed observations. Janet Arnold-Clark provides the needed comic relief as the broken sister, drying out in the Palm Springs heat and offering the play’s only true warmth.

“Other Desert Cities” overflows with tension and conflict, while packing a powerful punch in its climax. Sadly, it completes its run this weekend at the Westminster Community Playhouse.

If You Go

What: “Other Desert Cities”

When: 8 p.m. March 23 and 24; 2 p.m. March 25

Where: Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St.

Cost: $23 to $25

Information: (714) 893-8626 or wcpstage.com.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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