Real-life sisters Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall and Geer’s daughter Willow play characters with matching family ties in Theatricum Botanicum’s superb outdoor revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities.

Taking as its theme the continental divide that has polarized America into mud-slinging camps of liberals vs. conservatives, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist/Best Play Tony nominee gives that culture gap a decidedly personal, familial note.

It is Christmas morning 2004, and rather than head sensibly on down the highway to the “other Desert Cities” beyond Palm Springs, New York-based novelist/magazine writer Brooke Wyeth (Willow) and her TV-show-producing younger brother Trip (Rafael Goldstein) have agreed to spend the holidays with their staunch Republican parents Polly (Ellen) and Lyman (Mark Bramhall).

Raised the daughter of Hollywood semi-royalty and still recovering from over half-a-decade of debilitating depression, Brooke sees her father’s transition from B-movie-stardom to right-wing politics (he’s been both GOP chair and a Reagan-appointed ambassador) as just another in a long string of sell-outs, not unlike those committed by her “ADD-riddled, junk-food-addicted, porn-surfing little brother” Trip, creator of the hit reality TV show Jury Of Your Peers. (Think Judge Judy with “celebrity” juries.)

Though Brooke’s first visit home in over six years might seem nothing more than a long-postponed holiday reunion, she arrives with a bombshell about to explode, a soon-to-be-published family memoir focusing on her never-discussed older brother Henry, who “went to war with our parents, joined a cult, disappeared, and then planted a bomb in an army recruiting center, before killing himself,” Brooke’s belief in truth-at-any-cost once again putting her at odds with her parents’ (and particularly Polly’s) insistence upon privacy-by-all-means.

Polly’s recovering alcoholic sister Silda (Melora Marshall), with whom Polly co-wrote “the Hillary movies,” then feuded, then declared a cease-fire that may or may not last beyond this Christmas season, completes the cast of characters in what might at first appear to be nothing more than a comedic look at parents and their grown children of opposing political beliefs, but that’s before a family we’ve thought we’ve pegged ends up surprising us in the most devastating of ways.

Under MaryJo DuPrey’s astute direction, five brilliantly talented actors dig deep into decades of anger, resentment, hurt, jealousy, and love that somehow just won’t quit.

Her silver mane hidden under a short-cropped Nancy Reagan wig, Botanicum founder Will Geer’s daughter Ellen vanishes into Polly’s uber-Republican skin, a tough-loving iceberg whose tip scarcely hints at what lies beneath.

Geer’s own daughter Willow eschews the classics for what may well be her most subtly brilliant dramatic performance to date, a daughter so blinded by her version of events that when the truth finally hits, the results are shattering.

Bramhall and Goldstein are both sensational, the former giving Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston a run for their right-wing money, the latter the kind of laid-back slacker whose Hollywood success neither parent could have anticipated, and each one set to detonate when fuse ignites the explosive within.

Last but not least, Marshall gives Silda a heady combination of biting humor and repressed rage.

Scenic designer Rich Rose has cleverly transformed Theatricum Botanicum’s outdoor stage into the Wyeths’ spacious Palm Springs home, kudos shared with properties master Sydney Russell, their work lit to subtle perfection by Zachary Moore, with Vicki Conrad’s character-suiting costumes and sound designer Marshall McDaniel’s mood-setting original music completing a topnotch production design.

Jonathan Blandino is assistant director. Elna Kordijan is stage manager and Karen Osborne is assistant stage manager. Nima Jafari is production assistant. Beth Glasner is wardrobe supervisor and Skylar Johnson is lighting associate.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to see Other Desert Cities more than once, the first time for the thrill of discovery, the second (and beyond) for the chance to rediscover Baitz’s compelling cast of characters in a whole new light. I’ve now seen five productions, and though Theatricum Botanicum’s will hopefully not be the last, it’s one of the absolute best.

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The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

–Steven Stanley
September 3, 2017
Photos: Miriam Geer

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