by Fiona Hart
For a play that has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Tony nominee and has won a number of awards, this latest production from the Ensemble Theatre carries a curiously unarresting title. Indeed, the phrase only features once, when Brook explains that she often wishes she could drive straight past her hometown and instead follow the sign to ‘Other desert cities’. It is only by the end of the play that we understand the absolute genius of the wording, as this is in fact a play all about misdirection.
From the outset the focus is on Brook: the prodigal daughter with a history of depression that gives her permission to make disparaging comments about the way the rest of her family members lead their lives. Strongly performed by Lisa Gormley, Brook is brash and independent, yet carries an air of fragility that makes it easy to understand why her family tiptoes around her. But as the play unfolds we learn that this clever centralization (staged intelligently by director Mark Kilmurry, who ensures Brook physically commands the space throughout most of the play) is all based on our assumption that Brook is the most complex and interesting character. However, when she eventually stops to listen, and we are therefore released from our preoccupation with her back-story to do the same, we learn that the truth belonging to the people around her is really the tale we have come to be told.
The rest of the cast does a stellar job in doing so: Diana McLean is superb as the slightly dotty aunt; Ken Shorter plays the concerned father in a painfully authentic fashion; and Stephen Multari is commendable in the slightly predictable role of the happy-go-lucky-but-secretly-deeply-troubled younger brother. But it is Deborah Kennedy as Polly, Brook’s mother, who is utterly magnetic on stage. The clip of her tone, control of her movements and emotion of her delectable facial expressions make her at once formidable and fabulous. Polly is the glue that has held this family together through their difficult times, and Deborah in the role makes this particular truth, at least, incontrovertible.
This is a highly engaging, thought-provoking but still brilliantly entertaining piece of theatre from the Ensemble company. Take Brook’s advice and allow yourself to be misdirected: make your next destination Other Desert Cities.
Other Desert Cities is on at the Ensemble Theatre until 18 October 2014.