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Other Desert Cities with audio description: A poignant prickle of awesome

Robert Kingett reviews this play at the Goodman theater in Chicago that has an added accessibility feature for the blind and the visually impaired.

There are many good things beyond the doors of Goodman Theater, 170 N Dearborn St. An opulent entrance area with very helpful staff to issue tickets, a nicely stocked snack area with giant cookies for $3, and very nice carpeting.

Aside from these extravagant attractions Goodman Theater has something special to offer its blind and visually impaired consumers called Audio Description, a service that describes key visual elements such as actions, costumes, and scene changes in between natural pauses in dialogue through a singular clip on earpiece. Since I'm a blind journalist I thought that I’d find this added accessibility feature vital as in evaluating the new, entangling family drama titled Other Desert Cities. I wouldn't have attended the play, after all, if they didn't have this accessibility tool.

This poignant prickle of awesome by Jon Robin Baitz centers on a seemingly normal family with a tragic secret hidden beneath the fog of their excused truths. When Brooke Wyeth, (Tracy Michelle Arnold,) a brilliantly depressed writer brings her tell-all memoir to the sanctuary of her parents’ Palm Springs mansion on Christmas Eve she smashes the inner utopia created by her parents, Polly (Deanna Dunagan) and Lyman (Chelcie Ross) with the true story of her dead brother, Henry, who committed suicide a decade earlier. Along for the ride is her loving tethered brother Trip Wyeth (John Hoogenakker), and her quirky aunt Silda Grauman (Linda Kimbrough) who crackles with witty rehab recovery impressions that crumble on the events that actually happened and the events that their minds have conjured.

With the help of the cleverly crafted audio description, voiced by Victor Cole, I was able to easily follow their tense body language, frustrated gestures, and despairing facial expressions accompanying the dialogue that can both prick the heartstrings and tickle the funny bone. Taking place in a day, this family drama was gripping, masterful, and joyously devious. There's no clear-cut devil once the truths start to unravel about the faults of each family member. The subtle shift in trust with the audience and the family is very clever, making the shocking twists even more of a blow because, by the first half of the play, everyone will think that they know these clever people who are haunted by a dark past.

The spot on emulation of emotions aren't just conveyed through the whipping dialogue. Actions speak louder than words and, with the help of the audio description; I was able to see just how much this family shows, but doesn't tell. Their actions are their emotions and I was able to pick up on all that, from the tight hug given to Brooke by her father, to the disbelieving look on Silda Grauman’s face when the memoir begins to shove all of their secrets out into the open.

The audio description, even though it captured the visual elements perfectly, not over complicating the scene with big descriptive adjectives, was, at times, a little distracting when victor would get a direction wrong on the stage. Correcting the audio describer, even if it was only twice, slightly drew my attention from the action on the scene. The equipment, on the other hand, was perfect all throughout.

The clip on earpiece is a great way to follow both the play and the audio description utilizing both ears for their own purpose. In my case, my left ear listened to the dialogue while Cole talked in my right ear. For more control I could change the volume of the description, allowing me to focus on what I wanted when I wanted. I had no trouble with the device, which Cole himself placed in my hand when I sat down before the show started.

Cole brought the subtle tell-all actions to life. Audio description isn't terribly needed but it would help a blind or visually impaired person to pick up on the motives and feelings of the characters as they throw a witty retort, a somber apology, or a hurtful confession. The audio description definitely enhances the experience and clears up a lot of silent truths the characters show but don't tell.

Riding to the end of this play isn't hard. It isn't hard at all to stay connected to these people, watching their bubble collapse in the form of words on a page. This play, brilliantly written with the added visual touches cleared up for me by Cole, is a play that will possess you, grip you, and have you staring in joyous disbelief when the curtains slowly close on a fun time that not even a tell-all memoir can capture.

Other Desert Cities runs through Feb. 17. Approximate running time is 135 minutes with one intermission.

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