As the Tolstoy quote from “Anna Karenina” runs, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That must be why playwrights return again and again to the dysfunction of the family unit. It’s particularly acute in “Other Desert Cities,” the Jon Robin Baitz play that opens Saturday (with a preview today) at the Rubicon Theatre.
The play follows the clash of realities, political and otherwise, when liberal daughter Brooke (Michelle Duffy) returns after five years to Palm Springs to the home of her staunchly conservative parents Polly and Lyman (Amanda McBroom and Granville Van Dusen) to spend Christmas. Her aunt Silda (Deborah Taylor), who also used to be her writing partner in Hollywood, is there too, a not-yet-recovering alcoholic.
Brooke, however, is working on a book — her own family history — and insists on dragging up dark family secrets, especially the suicide of her brother, a former Weathermen-style radical. So, yes, this is going to be an uncomfortable holiday season, as heated as Yuletide in the desert.
Though it sounds like it might be a knockabout comedy, the Baitz play, which got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize back in 2012, is something deeper. If our country’s politics have descended into the kind of squabbling some families have over stuffing and gravy, then “Other Desert Cities” offers an alternative.
“It’s a very complex play,” says director Brian McDonald. “And it’s open to interpretation, deciding exactly what happened in all these relationships. It’s been very challenging for us and that’s why it attracts actors.”
Mr. Baitz premiered the play Off-Broadway in 2011, at a time when New York critics thought he might have squandered the potential shown in his earlier works like “The Film Society,” his first play, from 1987, which earned him a Drama Desk Award, and “A Fair Country” in 1996, which also earned him a Pulitzer nomination. But reviews at the time showed that Mr. Baitz had surprised them all with a well-rounded, mature work.
The cast have brought their own histories to rehearsal, and early on Mr. McDonald had them share stories about families, and what beliefs they held so dear that they’d sever familial relationships to keep. That was an uncomfortable place to go, he said, but necessary. At some point, he had to stop seeing the relationship with his own parents as a parent-child dynamic, and move to something more understanding.
“Theater can be therapeutic, though I wouldn’t call it therapy. It requires us to dig deep in our own lives and experiences to find truth, and to portray characters with honesty . . . I know that I get along better now with my parents because we talk about stuff. We don’t slip things under the rug and pretend nothing’s happened.
“I think at the end of the play that’s what Baitz is asking us to do,” he says. “There’s value in debate and in coming to the table and talking.”
Mr. McDonald is very happy with the long rehearsal times afforded the Rubicon cast. They’re giving their all as individuals, and it “allows them to take really big risks . . . It’s not melodrama, it’s not just entertainment.”
In fact, Mr. McDonald says, he sees the play as a horror film.
“We go to see those films because it’s a safe way to see something terrifying, but in the end it’s okay. And this play shows us something that’s familiar to us, but it’s horrifying to watch.”
“Other Desert Cities”
When: Wednesday through Sunday, through June 21
Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura
Information: (805) 667-2900, www.rubicontheatre.org