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Curiocity: Q&A With ‘Other Desert Cities’ Star

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From the creator of the hit TV drama, “Brothers & Sisters,” comes a play about a family trying to heal the wounds of a difficult tragedy.

Those wounds become reopened when daughter Brooke returns home for the holidays with a big surprise — a memoir about the family.

Leading the cast is a Guthrie favorite, Sally Wingert. Her portrayal of family matriarch Polly Wyeth has been hailed as both dynamic and emotional, a guiding light to an all-star cast and a dazzling dramedy.

We sat down to chat with the “Meryl Streep” of the Twin Cities about the new show and more.

Tell us a little about your character Polly. What is she like?

What is she like? Oh boy. She is really bright, well-educated, sassy, sometimes chilly Republican matriarch. She comes from Texas but has lived in California with her husband, who been a movie actor as well as an ambassador. And they are dinner companions of the Reagans and move in that circle. So she’s powerful and slightly, controlling … which I would know nothing about. (Laughs)

And then the daughter comes home for Christmas and wants to write a memoir …

Both the children converge on the house on Christmas Eve. So the play takes place all in one day on Christmas Eve. And their daughter Brooke lives on the East Coast, about as far away as you could get from somebody in Palm Springs, is an author and her second book, which she’s just about ready to publish, is a memoir. Polly and Lyman, her husband, feel that the memoir will reopen wounds and open closet doors that maybe they think should be kept shut, of family history.

Plus, with friends like the Reagans … there’s a lot of interesting stories, I’m sure.

Exactly. I don’t think she’s trying to exploit the political sort of machinations there but I think she’s really trying to heal herself from a tragedy that occurred to the whole family. Their first-born child Henry committed suicide when Brooke was a young girl, a teenage girl and it scarred her in a way that she’s trying to recover from — and this memoir is part of that recovery. It sounds very dark but actually, it’s not a dark play.

There’s also a lot of comedy?

Yes, a lot of comedy. Both Polly and her sister who lives with them are movie screenwriters. They’re fairly pithy and fun. And the kids are certainly sharp and funny. It’s written by Jon Robin Baitz, who is the man who creates “Brothers & Sisters.” Great show, with that great dialogue. It’s similar in the way that that TV show was funny and yet, it was also moving. I think “Other Desert Cities” is similar in that way.

You mentioned that it all takes place on one day. Is that a challenge to be in a show without scene changes, where all the focus and attention is completely on the characters and the dialogue?

It is all about the characters and the dialogue. We’re on a beautiful set. But we all liken it to being at one of those places where we’re standing at the station, the train pulls up, we get on that train and it just moves like a juggernaut. So it’s really fun. I can’t tell you how fun this play is for our cast to do. My fellow cast members are really extraordinary. We just have a gas doing it together. The audiences have been really warm, so it’s been fun.

(credit: Michael Brosilow)

(credit: Michael Brosilow)

It seems like the audiences have responded so well and there’s a lot of things in this play that people can relate to. What kind of feedback have you been getting?

I think that is so true. I’ve had a lot of feedback from audience members saying that they related to the play — you know, part of the play takes place during 2004 during the Iraq War. It harkens back to issues of Vietnam and people of my generation that remember sitting around dinner tables with parents arguing about the war, all of that comes back up again. It’s topical in that way.

Obviously, you’ve had a wonderful career — more than 75 productions at the Guthrie alone.

Over, way over. I’m ancient. That only happens when you get so dang old. (Laughs)

Are there certain roles that stick out for you? Certain moments that will always be highlighted for you?

My favorite role will always be the next one I’m doing. Always. I’m always excited to have a job and get to work on that stage. But there have been roles in the past. I’m on the Proscenium and one of my favorite Proscenium shows from the new building is a “Third” — I played a professor, Laurie Jameson, and just had a gas doing that, it was really fun and the audiences responded well to her. I also up in the studio did “Happy Days,” which is a Samuel Beckett play, very challenging and I had a great time with that. You know, the main stage, there’s just too many to even pick a favorite because as soon as I do, I go ‘ But what about that one?’ But most recently, I did “Arsenic and Old Lace” and it just reminded me how fabulous those American classic, handsome, sort of three-act plays are. So fun to do on that stage for our audiences who seem to respond well to them.

Is there anything you haven’t tapped yet that you’d love to do?

I would love to do more in the Shakespeare canon. I’d love to do more Chekhov. It’s really easy to get excited about anything that’s coming up. I’m going to do a play next called “The Primrose Path,” which is by Crispin Whittell. It’s going to be directed by Roger Rees, who when I was a little girl, I watched him do “Nicholas Nickleby” on PBS and it was kind of life-changing for me as an actor — and to get to be in a room and have him direct us is going to be … That play promises to also be funny and moving, which is kind of the best of both worlds, I think. You get to feel it all.

Before we go, what would you say as a final pitch to get people to come and see “Other Desert Cities,” if they haven’t already?

I’ve had people tell me that it’s one of the most provocative and moving shows they’ve seen in recent years, on any stage. It’s a hot ticket right now. I have to say that my fellow actors are fantastic, including Michelle Barber and David Brinkley, who are other local actors here that many people know from Chanhassen as well as many other area theaters. We have two out of town actors, Christian Conn and Kelly McAndrew, and I’m just going to cry when they leave our state. They’re too fantastic. So I’m begging — c’mon out, we’ve only got a few weeks left.

“Other Desert Cities” runs through March 24 at the Guthrie Theater. For more information and tickets, click here.

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