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Family Politics Heats Up "Other Desert Cities"

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When: Through Feb. 17
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25-$86
Info: (312) 443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org
Run time: 2:20 with one intermission

In the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, stories abounded about how ties had become severed between husbands and wives, among extended families and between lifelong friends as a result of virulent disagreements over politics and electoral choices.

Of course a similar scenario continues to play out in Congress on an almost daily basis. But none of this is really new. See the film "Lincoln" and you will be reminded of the fierce ideological fights waged beyond the Civil War battlefields. Think about the "armies of the night" Norman Mailer captured so vividly during the Vietnam War era. And recall the blistering culture wars of the 1980s and '90s.

Yes, this country's discordant trumpeters have been blowing into the wind for centuries. And Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright ("Three Hotels," "The Substance of Fire"), and creator of the ABC-TV series, "Brothers and Sisters," knows well that some of the loudest noises can also emanate from an upper class living room in Palm Springs, California.
It is in just such a place that he has set his latest play, "Other Desert Cities," which debuted off Broadway in 2011, subsequently transferred to Broadway, and is now about to receive its Chicago debut at the Goodman Theatre under the direction of Henry Wishcamper, recently named a resident artistic associate with the company.

The time is Christmas eve, 2004, as the nation is about to enter the second term presidency of George W. Bush. The home belongs to fervent Reagan-era Republicans -- Lyman Wyeth (La Grange-bred Chelcie Ross of AMC's "Mad Men"), and his wife, Polly (Deanna Dunagan, the Tony Award-winning actress who starred in "August: Osage County," and worked with Ross in the Sydney and London productions of that show). Visiting from New York is their daughter, Brooke (Tracy Michelle Arnold, who starred in "Private Lives" at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), who has just completed a family memoir, complete with a dark family "secret" from the 1960s. Also on hand is her brother, a reality tv producer, Trip (John Hoogenakker, who played the self-destructive Ivy League-educated lawyer in "The Iceman Cometh"); and Silda (veteran Chicago actress Linda Kimbrough), Polly's caustic, alcoholic sister, with whom she once penned screenplays. Not surprisingly, sparks fly.

"One of the things that is so interesting to me about this play is the way it generates such shifting sympathies," said Wishcamper, who grew up in Maine, spent much of his career in New York, and recently moved to the South Loop with his wife and two young children. "And to capture that I knew I needed actors who could craft complicated portraits of their characters."

"For the older Wyeths it is funny and useful to think of the Reagans -- self-made types, who had careers in Hollywood and politics, and made a decent amount of money along the way, both legitimately and through some sweetheart deals. Robbie [Baitz] writes deeply about family, but there's also a great deal of talk about friendship in this play -- 'useful friendships' that are deep, but also deeply pragmatic."

Wishcamper also sees some correspondences with his own life in the play's characters.

"My dad grew up in Texas and went to Yale, and while my parents come nowhere close to the social milieu in the play, they were upwardly mobile. And I was born the same year as Trip Wyeth, so I certainly have a comprehension of his and his sister Brooke's political and social points of view, and an understanding of the war on terror. As their Aunt Silda says in the play, Brooke [the writer] has explained a specific aspect of our national experience, but she has done it specifically by telling the story of her own family. And Robbie has done the same, well aware of the responsibility and power of a writer, and the damage he or she can do."

In casting the play, Wishcamper very purposefully aimed for an all-Chicago cast.

"I think the biggest difference between actors here and in New York is the way in which they can build their careers," said the director, who previously staged the Marx Brothers musical, "Animal Crackers," and Horton Foote's "Talking Pictures" at the Goodman, and also worked as an assistant director for both the Goodman's Robert Falls (on the 2006 Broadway production of "Shining City"), and Steppenwolf's Anna D. Shapiro (on the Broadway production of "August: Osage County"). "They get to have a great deal more time on stage over the course of their careers, and they are considered for far more varied and interesting roles on a regular basis. This has a tremendous effect."

As for the two Chicago directors he has worked with, he says of Falls: "He is an extraordinarily generous and brave artist who can make the rehearsal room, as well as his shows, very exciting." And he marvels at Shapiro's "ability to see the same show over and over again with a completely fresh eye, continually making adjustments."

Deanna Dunagan, who met Wishcamper when they were working on "August" in New York, recalls that while she never saw Baitz's play she was "gobsmacked by it" from the moment she first read it, and realized immediately "it would be a huge challenge."

"Baitz writes in a very writerly way, and doesn't use contractions," she explained. "So you have to figure that out. But having grown up in a tiny town in west Texas I AM familiar with the politics; my father was a Democratic elector who became a 'compassionate Republican.' I also know Polly -- a Texan, who happens to be Jewish, though as the play notes, she 'had to become a goy.' She also is what I would describe as a tough 'woman of the West'."

Dunagan noted that one of the things that drew her most strongly to the play was that "by the end, although you think you know everyone in the play, you really don't, especially the three of the older generation."

"And Henry [Wishcamper] has been such an amazing translator of this play," Dunagan said. "We've had a magnificent rehearsal period with a very congenial group, and we really are like a family."

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This page contains a single entry by Hedy Weiss published on January 16, 2013 4:29 PM.

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