Life imitates art, they say. Or is it the other way around? As Australia suffers through an election campaign, I’m guessing that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his family are a tad too busy for a night at the theatre.
But if they did make it, would they squirm in their seats at a performance of Other Desert Cities? Rudd’s daughter Jessica, like the politician’s daughter in the play, is a writer. Her first novel, Campaign Ruby, was published in 2010. In it, the prime minister is rolled by an ambitious female MP who becomes Australia’s first female prime minister. Prescient, or what? (For readers not familiar with Australian politics, that is exactly what happened to Kevin Rudd just months later).
In Other Desert Cities, the protagonist is Brooke Wyeth (played by Rebecca Davis), the daughter of former B-grade movie star, Republican senator and ex-Ambassador Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly. The family – including Brooke’s younger brother Trip and Polly’s sister Silda – has gathered for Christmas at the family home in Palm Springs. Brooke has brought along the manuscript of her new book and her family is keen to read it. Only this time, she hasn’t written a novel, but a memoir about her political family’s life – and specifically the death of her older brother.
As I take my seat in the theatre, I’m instantly hooked by the set. The Wyeths lounge room has a 70s style conversation pit around a gas fire, the walls are lined with bookcases and framed movie posters and the floor-to-ceiling windows reveal the desert landscape beyond. I want to move right in, immediately.
When the players take the stage, it’s necessary first to attune your ears to the American accents adopted by such familiar faces as renowned Australian actors Robert Coleby and Janet Andrewartha, playing the senior Wyeths. Coleby’s real-life son Conrad is Trip Wyeth and Vivienne Garrett plays recovering alcoholic Aunt Silda (who sadly has little to do and seems a bit irrelevant to the plot, except perhaps to show that there’s a renegade in every family).
Robert Coleby’s face is on the cover of the program, and his mock-death-scene (a party trick for the kids) provides one of the play’s few comedic moments – but it’s Andrewartha who owns the stage. Her matriarch is brittle and acerbic, the perfect political wife. She’s not easy to like but as the plot takes an unforeseen twist, she garners sympathy as well as some of the best lines.
Other Desert Cities was written by Jon Robin Baitz, whose many credits include episodes of The West Wing and who created and executive produced Brothers & Sisters. It’s no surprise, then, that the writing is sharp and witty and moves at a pace.
Do all political families have their secrets? This one certainly did, and the revelation of that secret – brought about by Brooke’s book – is the climax of the play.
Perhaps it’s a good thing the Prime Minister’s family is busy on the hustings right now. Jessica Rudd’s got enough ideas of her own.
Other Desert Cities is a joint production by the Queensland Theatre Company and Western Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre Company. It runs at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Complex, Brisbane, until September 1.