PITTSFIELD — Director Kevin Paul Wixsom is known among Town Players of Pittsfield folk and audiences for his work on comedies. His newest project, however, Jon Robin Baitz' "Other Desert Cities," is a complete change of pace — a penetrating drama about a prominent political family whose private life and the dark secret that goes with it — is about to unravel with the potential publication of a memoir by one of them.
"I wanted to see if I had it in me to do something challenging. This is an awesome play," Wixsom said during a recent pre-rehearsal interview at the Whitney Center for the Arts on Wendell Avenue, where the production begins a two-weekend run on Friday evening.
Set on Christmas Eve 2004, "Other Desert Cities" is plays out in the Palm Springs, Calif. home of the Wyeths — Lyman, a former movie star and an ambassador in the Reagan administration, and Polly, a former screenwriter and behind-the-scenes Republican Party mover and shaker.
Joining them for the holidays are Polly's estranged alcoholic sister, Silda; their son, Trip; and their rebellious daughter, Brooke, who is returning to her parents' home after a six-year absence. A writer for a magazine in New York, she has brought with her the manuscript of a soon-to-be-published memoir which, among other items, discusses the suicide, years earlier, of her brother, Henry, who, as a member of a radical underground movement, was involved in the bombing of a draft board in an anti-Vietnam war protest.
"Other Desert Cities" premiered Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater in 2010, where it had a limited run before reopening in November 2011 at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. It closed in June 2012. It received five Tony Award nominations and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Wixsom is piloting a cast that includes Gayle Schechtman as Polly, C.J. Morgan as Lyman, Gabrielle Smechetti as Brooke, Jackie DeGiorgis as Silda and Jerry Greene as Trip.
"The issues are timeless," Schechtman said, joining Wixsom and fellow cast members DeGiorgis and Greene for the interview. "This play is about someome doing something in a family that has consequences for others. People step on each other."
"The things that happen in this play could happen to anyone," Wixsom said. "We're talking about the role of money in a family; trust; family obligations."
It's the dead son, Henry, who looms large in "Other Desert Cities." He's the elephant in the room. And Trip, the youngest of the three siblings, has been living in his dead brother's shadow, says Greene.
"He jumps out at you," Greene said. "He brings another level of observation about what's going on."
On the surface, there is a yawning divide between Polly and Silda. The two once were writing partners, penning comedies in the 1960s for MGM. But Silda's slip into alcoholism and Polly's drift into conservative politics has created an irreconcilable split.
"When I first read the play, I thought of Silda as comic relief," DeGiorgis commented. "But when I got to the final scene, I realized just how vulnerable she is.
"She's just out of rehab and there is a lot of sisterly tension; a lot of love and hate. She's an alcoholic wreck when you first meet her. And then, you see her as having been a kind of mother figure for Henry and Brooke, before she becomes a mess again."
Wixsom sees his primary role as director as a "conduit for the emotions of the characters.
"My job," he said, "is to get my actors to read the play and play their characters the way I heard the play when I read it. At the same time, I'm open to discussion, hearing other ways. I try to give my actors (some) free range "
"He's really very non-judgmental and open to actors," Schechtman said.
Wixsom says he's hopeful audiences will be entertained by the play and appreciate what Baitz has to say.
"We are all in the same boat," Schwechtman said. "It's really an amazing story to tell."
What: "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by Kevin Paul Wixsom
Who: Town Players of Pittsfield
Where: Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
When: Friday through Oct. 23. Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Sunday at 2
Tickets: $15; $12 (seniors, students); $10 (members)
How: (413) 443-9279