If you’re driving east on Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to Phoenix, you’re driving on the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway known as the Palm Springs Desert Valley Freeway. You can turn off on California State Route 111 and head to Palm Springs, or continue on I-10 to Indio and to – other Desert Cities. Just which other desert cities is left for you to discover as you move down the highway.
In Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play, Lyman and Polly Wyeth live a comfortable and perhaps insular life in one of those desert cities. But events in the world outside have conspired to uncover cracks in their carefully constructed existence. Of major import is the return of their daughter, Brooke, who has brought with her the manuscript of a memoir. Honor Moore, herself a memoirist and poet, wrote in her introduction to the play, “As the play unfolds, the making of art — in this case the publication of a book — becomes a metaphor for the investigation of the cost of telling the truth.” What are the ethics of exposing the hidden lives, the past lives, the perhaps tragic lives of those who are still living? What does a child owe a parent? A parent owe a child?
A strong undercurrent to this major theme is the setting of the play in the year 2004. Mr. Baitz said in a 2013 interview on PBS, “Well, one of the reasons it’s called “Other Desert Cities” is because I am thinking about, as someone says in the play, a war going on thousands of miles away in another desert.” The prolonged conflict in Iraq had uncovered what Mr. Baitz felt was a great complacency in the world. In some ways then, the conflicts exposed in this family reunion become an allegory of those in the larger political landscape.
In the end, Other Desert Cities is about the consequences of the choices we make whether in politics or in families - the keeping or disclosing of secrets, stability or change, objectivity or compassion.
Honor Moore. Introduction. New York City, 2011 (In Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, Dramatists Play Services, Inc. Acting Edition, 2012.
In ‘Other Desert Cities,’ a Family History Lush in Secrets – PBS’ Jeffrey Brown talks to Jon Robin Baitz about his play. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/other-desert-cities