Last night I had the opportunity to attend ‘Other Desert Cities’ at the Guthrie Theater. ‘Other Desert Cities’ takes place over the course of Christmas Eve. Brooke, who has recently been hospitalized for depression, and her brother have come to stay with their parents for the holiday. The play is premised on the notion that Brooke’s brother, Henry, committed suicide after assisting a radical leftist organization with a bombing. This loss, and the story of the circumstances around it, has profoundly influenced Brooke’s life and recovery from depression, and inspired her to write a memoir. When she returns home for Christmas, Brooke informs her family the memoir will be published in the New Yorker. This public voicing of the family secret creates chaos and sparks discussions about mental illness, the nature of silence, the nature of change, and the importance of truth.
Henry’s suicide, and the fact of his existence, has been erased from the family memory. Very few pictures of Henry can be found in the house, and it is clearly off-limits for discussion. Brooke has grown up within the silence around Henry, longing for her beloved brother but unable to discuss the experience of loss with anyone in her family.
However, Brooke’s parents have wealth and status within their community and believe her memoir will ruin their reputation. They have an interest in and benefit from maintaining silence, and the family system is dependent upon this silence. For the family system in its current iteration to continue, silence must be maintained.
Much of the play is consumed with the question of truth. What is truth? What does Brooke have to gain from speaking the truth of her experience? What purpose does it serve? Who does telling the truth harm or heal, and is it worth it? Is it possible for divergent truths to exist within a family? And do these divergent truths make it impossible to relate or love?
There was promise for deep examination of what it means to have divergent truths within a family, the stigma of mental illness and suicide, and how to maintain mental health in hostile territory, but the writing got weak towards the end. Rather than coming to a conclusion about the issues raised by suicide and mental illness, an unexpected revelation turns the play in a completely different direction.
While the first two-thirds of the play did an excellent job of depicting a family dealing with the fallout from suicide, depression, and chemical dependency, the last third seemed to negate the entire premise. A lot of thoughtful material is brought up, and then nothing is done with it. This does not mean the play is not worth seeing—it is fascinating to watch the complex family dynamics unfold. However, be aware that very little is done with this unfolding. While this play brings to light the very types of conversations people with mental illnesses might have with their families in a way that is emotionally real, it collapses on itself and refuses to play them out to their conclusion.