Play about holiday family gathering reveals a house divided

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 6, 2018

 From left, Maria Kelly, Michael Trudel, Laura VerBeek, Rebekah Tiefenbach Sellers and Aaron Sohaski star in “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Purdon Studio Theatre, the black-box theatrical arm of Grosse Pointe Theatre.

From left, Maria Kelly, Michael Trudel, Laura VerBeek, Rebekah Tiefenbach Sellers and Aaron Sohaski star in “Other Desert Cities,” presented by Purdon Studio Theatre, the black-box theatrical arm of Grosse Pointe Theatre.

Photo by Dale Pegg, provided by Grosse Pointe Theatre

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — A profoundly divided family comes together during the holidays, forcing them to confront their differences, in the dark comedy “Other Desert Cities,” a new production by the Purdon Studio Theatre — the black-box theatrical arm of Grosse Pointe Theatre.

“Other Desert Cities” will be staged Feb. 15-25 at Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church. The audience is also invited to post-show talkback discussions with the cast and director Jerry Nehr, of Grosse Pointe Woods, on Feb. 16, 18, 22 and 24.

After being away for six years, novelist Brooke Wyeth returns to her wealthy parents’ home in Palm Springs to spend Christmas with her parents, her brother and her aunt. When Brooke reveals that she’s going to publish a memoir that will reveal a terrible and tragic family secret, tempers flair and arguments erupt between the liberal Brooke and her conservative relatives, forcing the family to confront their less-than-perfect past.

Rebekah Tiefenbach Sellers, of St. Clair Shores, plays Brooke; Michael Trudel, of Grosse Pointe Park, plays father Lyman; Laura VerBeek, of Grosse Pointe Park, plays mother Polly; Aaron Sohaski, of Hazel Park, plays brother Trip; and Maria Kelly, of Royal Oak, plays aunt Silda.

Nehr directed this show last year for the Fine Arts Society of Detroit, which gave its set to GPT. He said “Other Desert Cities” tackles issues like shame and guilt, along with the loss of cohesiveness in families, particularly when substance abuse is present.

“This is a show that looks at some of the more meaningful things that are going on,” he said.

The show — which also deals with deep political divisions in a family — is especially timely now, given the divided political landscape in America today.

“One of the reasons we are where we are now is because of the things that spawned this play,” said Tiefenbach Sellers. She noted that “Other Desert Cities” is set in 2004; this was shortly after the start of the Iraq War, in which the United States sent troops into Iraq as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in America.

“The fractures were never fixed,” Tiefenbach Sellers said. “Social media doesn’t help those things. … There’s so much anger that doesn’t get resolved. This play is one of the reasons why we need art.”

Art, she continued, enables people to reflect on issues, develop empathy and see other perspectives.

“If you don’t care about something, you don’t care to fix it,” Tiefenbach Sellers said. “If you really want to touch people, you need to make them care about something.”

The cast members were drawn to “Other Desert Cities” because of its meaty roles.

“This is an actors’ show,” Trudel said. “There are five great parts in this show.”

Sohaski, making his GPT debut and returning to the stage after an eight-year hiatus, said he was drawn to the play because of “the richness of the characters.”

“There’s so much on the surface of this family, but there’s so much (more) that’s revealed,” he said. “Because it’s such an ensemble cast, you get to see all of the layers with these people.”

The cast and director say “Other Desert Cities” is a realistic play that audiences can connect with through the characters.

“There won’t be a person in the audience that won’t be able to relate to something (in the show),” Nehr said.

VerBeek said the play has “great dialogue” — no surprise there, given that it was penned by Jon Robin Baitz, whose other credits include television shows like “The West Wing” and “Brothers and Sisters.”

“It’s a very well-crafted play,” VerBeek said. “The characters are very human, so they’re all multidimensional. There are some twists and turns in the story that will surprise the audience.”

It will be presented in an intimate setting with a thrust stage, with the audience sitting on three sides; there will only be about 50 seats for each show, so advance reservations are encouraged. Audience members will be closer than normal to the stage, which is lower than a standard stage at only 4 inches high.

“From a production standpoint, we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before with Purdon Studio Theatre,” Trudel said. “(The idea is), let’s get up close and personal with the audience. Let’s put them in the room with us.”

Nehr concurred.

“We want you to be closer so that you can be a part of this,” he said.

Grosse Pointe Woods Presbyterian Church is located at 19950 Mack Ave. Parking is free. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased in advance by calling GPT at (313) 881-4004 or visiting www.gpt.org.