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Civic Theatre family visits 'Desert Cities'

Following its critically-acclaimed production of "August: Osage County," Civic Theatre presents another Lehigh Valley premiere, that of "Other Desert Cities."

"One of my things was, if you liked the Westons, you'll love the Wyeths," says William Sanders, Civic Artistic Director who's directing "Other Desert Cities."

The Wyeths is the family at the center of "Other Desert Cities." The Westons is the family at the center of "August: Osage County."

"Other Desert Cities" opens Feb. 28 and continues through March 15 at Civic's Nineteenth Street Theatre, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown.

"Other Desert Cities" was written by Jon Robin Baitz, creator of TV's "Brothers & Sisters." "Other Desert Cities" premiered Off-Broadway in January 2011 and was named Outstanding Play by the Outer Critics Circle in 2011.

"Other Desert Cities" transferred to Broadway in November 2011, directed by Tony Award-winner Joe Mantello. The production received five Tony Awards nominations (winning for featured actor, female, play) and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Some who saw Civic's production of "August: Osage County" found their experience enhanced when they saw the movie adaptation, which was screened at Civic.

"August: Osage County" garnered Oscar nominations for Meryl Streep, actor, female, and Julia Roberts, supporting actor, female.

Baitz is writing the screenplay for "Other Desert Cities."

"Working on a screenplay doesn't necessarily mean that it will be made, but I think so, because it will make a great movie," Sanders says of Baitz's screenplay.

Under Sanders' tutelage, 1991-2000 and 2003 through now, Civic has become a leader in Lehigh Valley stage premieres. Sanders has directed the area premieres of 39 plays, including 32 that have never been done in the Valley and seven that were done by other area theater companies after Civic presented them first.

Sanders directed Baitz's first play, "The Film Society," in 1994.

"I hope that people will come out and support the opportunity to see a Tony nominee and Pulitzer finalist that we are producing locally," Sanders says.

Civic Managing Director Michael Traupman was first turned down when he requested the rights to stage "Other Desert Cities" at Civic. Sanders is friends with Mantello and Baitz. "I called Robbie [Baitz] and asked him if he could do something and he did," Sanders says in a recent interview.

The title of the play, "Other Desert Cities," refers to a Department of Transportation highway sign along eastbound Interstate 20 in California: "Indio And Other Desert Cities."

The play takes place in the Palm Springs, Calif., mansion of Lyman (Barry Glassman) and Polly Wyeth (Becky Engborg), a politically-connected California couple.

Visiting for the holidays are son, Trip (Will Morris), a Hollywood movie producer; daughter, Brooke (Gretchen Klinedinst Furst), a writer; and Polly's sister Silda (Marianne Green), a former screenwriter.

Brooke brings with her a manuscript for her book, "Love And Mercy" (original title for "Other Desert Cities").

The Civic production, with set design by Jason Sherwood and lighting design by Morris, emphasizes family relationships.

"It's a five-character play. It was really important to me to make our space a little more intimate. We've got some high-end furniture. It's realistic," Sanders says.

"I've been fortunate enough to be in some houses in Long Island. And not all of them are expansive. It was important to make the players feel as if they weren't in a cavernous space, to be able to relate to each other, in what feels like a family living room."

Sanders says he mostly cast age-appropriate actors with whom he and other cast members have worked before.

"I think it's useful to have people you trust. And also if you have a play that deals with the family, it's good if they know each other because we have a really short rehearsal process.

"I think the other thing about casting it, is to get one new face [Green], who's never been in anything at Civic before. It was kind of like [Civic's 2013] 'Christmas Carol.' There were only two people who had been in it before and they didn't play leads."

"Other Desert Cities" blends three theater genres.

"It has everything. It has the elements of mystery. It has the elements of an Arthur Miller play -- the family dynamics. It has the elements of a Neil Simon comedy -- it's very funny. There's as many secrets, twists and turns as a potboiler melodrama from the great age of the American theater," Sanders says.

"It appears as three different plays on its surface because it does have those elements, and I think that that's really tricky to negotiate. There needs to be a sense of banter and yet underneath it there needs to be a sense of pain and difficulty going on.

"They're [the Wyeths] coming together ostensibly for Christmas and they know she's [Brooke] written a book, but they don't know it's a roman à clef. How do you deal with someone who's basically betraying family secrets?

"Nothing is quite what it seems, which, I think, is true about life. It's all about perspective," Sanders says.

Ticket information: civictheatre.com, 610-432-8943

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO From left: Gretchen Klinedinst Furst (Brooke), Barry Glassman (Lyman), Marianne Green (Silda), Becky Engborg (Polly), Will Morris (Trip), 'Other Desert Cities,' Feb. 28 - March 15, Civic's Theatre, Allentown.