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Family politics heat up ‘Other Desert Cities’

John Hoogenakker (from left) Chelcie Ross DeannDunagan LindKimbrough Tracy Michelle Arnold star Goodman Theatre's 'Other Desert Cities' which is directed

John Hoogenakker (from left), Chelcie Ross, Deanna Dunagan, Linda Kimbrough and Tracy Michelle Arnold star in Goodman Theatre's "Other Desert Cities," which is directed by Henry Wishcamper. | Liz Lauren photo

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When: Through Feb. 17

Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25-$86

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Run time: 2:20 with one intermission

Updated: February 21, 2013 6:28AM

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,” think back to 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 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, Calif.

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 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 presidential term 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 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), and Silda (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.

“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 intentionally 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. “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.”

Deanna Dunagan recalls being “gobsmacked” by Baitz’s play from the moment she first read it.

As she explains: “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 ‘became 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.”

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