Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat

It's easy making judgments without all the facts - they usually just get in the way.

"Other Desert Cities," playing through May 19 at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora, is a minefield of strategically missing information, and any conclusion the audience reaches before the final curtain is likely to be wrong.

What starts out as a small family reunion on Christmas Eve in Palm Springs quickly spirals into unholy territory, as the usual polite banter is spiked with hints of impended doom.

It's pure entertainment, if you like your tension thick.

The first act, opening with the sounds of a typewriter and Beach Boys music, is pleasant enough as we get to know the family - the parents, Lyman and Polly Wyeth, devout Republicans, well connected and unwavering in their opinions; daughter Brooke, a writer on the comeback after a psychological breakdown; son Trip, producer of a hit reality television show; and Polly's sister,SildaGrauman, a freshly recovering alcoholic.

It appears to be a fairly normal family, if somewhat privileged, but there's an episode in the past the parents are trying to forget - an incident Brooke has chosen as the subject of her new book.

As unlikely as it may seem, the first half of the play is packed with humor. It may be a reaction to the underlying stress, but it's also a situation everyone can relate to - dealing with relatives in a confined environment.

Nearly all of the action takes place in Lyman and Polly's home on a single day in 2004. The title of the play is taken from signs on Interstate 10 east of San Bernardino - an exit to the right goes to Palm Springs, while the lanes ahead lead to "Other Desert Cities."

Polly never takes that road. It goes to Indio, or worse yet, Desert Hot Springs.

Much better to remain in the safety of the home and country club.

That shelter is threatened with Brooke's new book, which is completed but not yet published. A battle rages, and the stakes are the survival of the family.

The second act focuses on that struggle, and as more and more details emerge, the safe dramatic speed limit is wildly abandoned.

Playwright Jon Robin Baitz' riveting script - a finalist for both the 2012 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize - is brought to life by a tight ensemble consisting of Michael Crich and Sarah Grimes-Emmons as Lyman and Polly Wyeth, Traci Sprague as Brooke, Kyle Duval as Trip and Sally McClellan as Silda.

All are stellar, with abundant energy, emotion and style.

Crich and Grimes-Emmons nail their roles as the parents, all pomp and posture bolstered by a lifetime of social and financial success.

It is tempting to think of them as surrogates for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, yet the crafty book eliminates this possibility by including the presidential couple as off-stage characters.

Polly even once got the verbal upper hand on Nancy, while Ron had appointed Lyman ambassador.

On the other hand, Lyman did start as an actor before gaining political office and Polly is as sharp and aloof as one might imagine the former first lady. In addition, the Wyeth children diverge from the family politics much the same as the Reagan offspring.

The Wyeth secret, however, is far deeper than any revealed in the Reagan clan.

As Brooke, Sprague drives the drama, insisting on telling the truth as she sees it regardless of the adverse consequences her story is sure to have on her parents.

Sprague brilliantly navigates between loving daughter and damaged soul. As Polly points out early, "There are a lot of locked doors in her dollhouse."

Duval also shines as younger brother Trip, who often serves as family mediator and comic relief valve. His boundless energy is matched only by his crackling enthusiasm.

As Silda, the drunk who doesn't drink, McClellan nearly steals the show, especially in her entrance with a capital E. True to dramatic form, even she has secrets to hide.

Maryann Curmi directs, ensuring that the action moves swiftly along and that the copious dialogue is never dull.

Ron Cotnam designed the marvelous set, complete with decorated palm trees in the living room.

Matthew Leamy designed the unpretentiously effective lighting, with a range of costumes by Linda Glick.

The wardrobes of Polly and Lyman shout elegant Palm Springs leisure, while their children are generally unkempt, most likely a sign of rebellion, and Silda's wild wear reflects what must be going on in her head much of the time.

There are many benefits to attending the theater - you are likely to see your friends and associates in the audience, or you may spot a stranger who spurs your imagination in enchanting ways.

The best reason is, though, is the possibility of taking a journey to destinations unknown.

"Other Desert Cities" plays through May 19 at 208 S. Green St. in downtown Sonora.

For reservations, call 536-1778 or visit www.stage3org.