More than a decade ago, Twin Cities actor and mother Sara Jane Olson was unmasked as 1970s California radical Kathleen Soliah. That case, which resulted in a prison term for her, shattered the serene façade that she had constructed for herself and her family. The episode also pointed to some of the unresolved cultural conflicts that stretch from the 1960s and ’70s and still animate our culture.
The revolutionary zeal of real-life Soliah and others like her, which attracted support and alienated opponents, is an undercurrent of “Other Desert Cities,” Jon Robin Baitz’s fictional drama that opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
The play, set during the holidays in 2004, embodies the macro issues of the time in the privileged, Hollywood-connected Wyeth family. Patriarch Lyman and matriarch Polly have gathered with their two children, Trip and Brooke, as well as Polly’s sister, Silda, in Palm Springs, Calif. The parents are staunch Republicans who disdain the left, which is to say the rest of their family.
Lyman, a former actor, and Polly, a former TV writer with Silda, are dinner buddies with the Reagans. Trip is a TV writer and part-time stoner. Brooke is a writer. Things come to a head when Brooke reveals that she’s doing a tell-all memoir that focuses on the death of another Wyeth spawn — a brother who was caught up in the revolutionary subculture of a bygone era.
“Other Desert Cities” opened in January 2011 at Lincoln Center before transferring to a Broadway playhouse. That much-lauded production starred Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing, both original cast members, as well as Judith Light, who replaced Linda Lavin as Silda and won the play’s only Tony Award out of five nominations. The drama was directed by Joe Mantello, who was Baitz’s partner for 12 years.
“This play is really like an onion,” said Peter Rothstein, who is staging the Guthrie production. “The theater and entertainment business are often accused of having a liberal bias. But Jon Robin Baitz doesn’t take sides. He really goes to bat for all his characters.”
Baitz, whose other plays include “Ten Unknowns” and a 2001 Broadway revival of “Hedda Gabler,” has been touted for more than a decade as the next big thing in theater. (He also has written for TV, and created the series “Brothers and Sisters.”) Some critics suggested that he finally fulfilled his promise with “Other Desert Cities,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
The play, which is being produced across the country, is a well-made work that hews to the classic rules of drama, even if some critics have complained that the muscularity of the plot peters out as it reaches its conclusion.
“I read it before I saw it, so I had certain ideas of what it would be like,” said Rothstein. “When I saw it in New York, I thought there was a missed opportunity in how it climaxes.”
That sounds like he intends to surpass the Broadway production.
“Please don’t quote me on that,” he said with a laugh.
The Twin Cities production stars David Anthonly Brinkley (“Scottsboro Boys”) as Lyman, Guthrie veteran Sally Wingert as Polly and Michelle Barber as Silda. East Coast-based actors Christian Conn plays Trip while Kelly McAndrew plays Brooke.
For Wingert, the family contradictions only enrich the piece. She likens Polly to Nancy Reagan, but with a distinction. “I’ve been reading Nancy Reagan’s autobiography, and I believe, at baseline, Nancy Reagan is a wife,” she said. “She was hugely protective of her husband. I think that Polly thinks her marriage is important to her but at her core, she’s a mother. She’s a flawed mother, certainly, who’s very clear about her philosophy and political beliefs. But in the end, she would do anything that’s required by her maternal drive.”
The play came out and generated a certain charge from the presidential elections. The Guthrie staging comes in the wake of the political deluge.
“This is the first major production post-election, and I’m curious to see how it lands,” said Rothstein.