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Diana McLean, Ken Shorter and Deborah Kennedy. All images: Clare Hawley.

THEATRE: 12 SEPTEMBER 2014

By JOHN ROZENTALS

Other Desert Cities, by Jon Robin Baitz | Directed by Mark Kilmurry

Ensemble Theatre | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 18 October

Just how much can the experiences of one American family reflect the divisions in that country’s society as it steps into the disastrous abyss of the Iraq War?

Quite a lot when the story is being told by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, who set Other Desert Cities around a Christmas tree in a well-to-do Californian home circa 2003.

I don’t rate Baitz’s family drama quite as highly as I do Eugene O’Neill’s monumental A Long Day’s Journey into Night or Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County but it’s certainly high up the second tier.

Retirees Lyman Wyeth (Ken Shorter) and his wife Polly (Deborah Kennedy) sit very much to the right of the American political spectrum, to the point of occasionally dining with George Bush Snr and having firmly embraced the ideas of fellow cinema-industry regular Ronald Reagan.

They’re hosting two adult children, Trip (Stephen Multari) and Brook (Lisa Gormley), for Christmas. Also living in the house is Polly’s sister Silda (Diana McLean), a confirmed alcoholic and very much a small-l liberal whose political and social views are diametrically opposed to those of the Wyeths.

Brook is a talented writer who has been through an episode of depression. She has just written a memoir based on the apparent suicide of her brother Henry, who had participated in some quite extreme terrorist activities.

The content of that memoir creates a schism as wide as the Grand Canyon and threatens to bring the family to its knees.

Trip, a producer of flippant reality TV shows, at first seems to sit very much on the sidelines, but emerges centre stage with very firm opinions and emotions.

All of the performances under Mark Kilmurry’s skilful direction are superb, especially the expressiveness of Deborah Kennedy’s long, slender, quite beautiful fingers.

But if I had to single anyone out it would be Ken Shorter.

At the risk of showing my considerable age, I recall watching him as a young conscript in the 1960s ABC TV series You Can’t See Round Corners. He was brilliant then and he’s obviously lost none of his skills over nearly half a century.

And a word of praise for designer Ailsa Paterson, who has created the very model of a modern middle-American home, complete with horseshoes hanging on the double-brick wall.

It was certainly interesting watching Other Desert Cities the night after we’d seen another Ensemble production, David Williamson’s A Conversation, which also dealt extremely emotionally with family conflict in excessively trying conditions.

If possible, go see them both. You will be moved.

Ken Shorter.

Lisa Gormley.

Stephen Multari and Deborah Kennedy.