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Revisiting “Desert Cities” & the Greatest Soap Clip Ever

March 7th, 2012

Judith Light in "Other Desert Cities". Photo by Joan Marcus.

Family. No matter how distanced or strained, the bond between family is a thin but neon-glowing thread, unmistakeable to anyone watching two family members interact. The bond between siblings or parents and children is so unspoken yet obvious that it is a particular challenge to recreate on stage with people who may have only known each other since rehearsals began.

So when I returned to see the Broadway production of Other Desert Cities, the tightly constructed and eminently satisfying play by Jon Robin Baitz I saw and enjoyed in its Off-Broadway incarnation last year, I was pleased to find that it had grown and deepened, mainly because the family dynamics felt more “right” with a new cast. Returning vets Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach have enriched their performances with an ease and specificity that is moving. Newest cast member Justin Kirk (Weeds) has slipped into his role as the truth-telling son with a world weariness that makes the character more likable and coherent than before. (I saw one of Rachel Griffiths‘ last performances as the daughter whose memoir unravels her family. The role is now being played by the Off-Broadway originator Elizabeth Marvel so it should be in equally compelling hands.)

But the real surprise (and the strongest source of that familial connection) turned out to be Judith Light, taking over the role of the alcoholic Aunt Silda. Linda Lavin, who originated the role at Lincoln Center, was hugely enjoyable in the role and, at first, Light doesn’t hit the laughs like Lavin (causing some concern)–but then you see that she’s up to something different. This Silda is more fragile, more wasted away and, tellingly, more clearly the sister of the tough as nails Polly, played by Channing. They feel like sisters. They feel like Texans (I hadn’t even noticed that they were from Texas the first time I saw the play.) They have history. Light finds a neediness and a despair under the laughs that enriches (and truly supports) Channing’s towering performance, while she also amplifies the core surprises of the play. It’s great work.

Light has always had the goods. She’s had a varied and impressive career in TV and theater beyond Who’s the Boss but, even better, I have to say that she appears in one of the greatest–if not the greatest–soap opera scenes of all time. Call it silliness, but I defy you to watch the following clip from One Life to Live without welling up with tears at the fierceness of Light’s performance. Sure, it’s beyond melodramatic and rife with barely rehearsed awkwardness, but darned if it isn’t spectacularly riveting. Watch as married good-girl Karen Wolek (played by Light in an Emmy-winning role) finally unravels on the stand at a murder trial, revealing what she’s really been doing on the street corners of Lanview. (If you can’t take the build up, start at 2:30 to get right to the suds.)

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