Friday, January 25, 2013

An interview with Deanna Dunagan, part one

Posted By on 01.25.13 at 12:20 PM

The latest from Deanna Dunagans collection of matriarchs: Polly Wyeth in Other Desert Cities
  • Liz Lauren
  • The latest from Deanna Dunagan's collection of matriarchs: Polly Wyeth in Other Desert Cities
In 2007, Chicago-based actress Deanna Dunagan appeared in the original Steppenwolf Theatre production of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County, stunning everybody with her performance as Violet Weston—the foul-mouthed ("Why don't you go fuck a fucking sow's ass?"), savage ("I'll eat you alive, girl!"), drug-addled ("Gizza cig . . . some cigezze? Cig-zezz, cig-zizz, cig-zuhzzz") matriarch of a monumentally dysfunctional Oklahoma family. Later that year the production moved to Broadway and Dunagan won a best-actress Tony Award. This week she opened at Goodman Theatre as the more genteel but equally formidable mama Polly Wyeth. In Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, Polly runs a prominent, west-coast Republican family with significant baggage. Our conversation is offered in two installments. In this first one, Dunagan sweetly but firmly disabuses me of a lot of misconceptions regarding Baitz's play and her character.

Polly is so much like Violet.

You know, you're not the first person to say that, but I don't agree at all.

Tell me why.

Well, Polly is in complete control. She's so rigidly in control that she's about to snap, and she's held it together for all these years—not that she doesn't self-medicate. Violet is a mess and truly vicious, and I don't think Polly really is.

But she's another tough matriarch.

Yes, but there are many ways of being a tough matriarch. I see that they're both manipulative and mostly get their way. But they're so different. Violet isn't really in complete control of her actions, her physical life. She falls down and she appears stoned to people. People can tell that she's under the influence. And this is never true with Polly. Polly is completely composed. She tries to maintain a good face. She keeps a public persona going. She's been extremely involved in politics and in maintaining the facade of a happy family. And Violet has not managed to do that.

But a lot of the relationships in the two plays seem to echo: the relationship between mother and daughter, the relationship between wife and husband.

Oh no, not the wife and the husband

No?

Because Polly is the backbone. She's the backbone. I hate to contradict you

No, go ahead. I'd love for you to contradict me.

OK. Just from my point of view, just from playing them. Violet's relationship with [her husband] is one of mutual understanding, but with lots of verbal abuse. She's absolutely laid him low, you know. And he's just, he's over that. He's just very patient and lets her do what she wants to do. [Polly and her husband, Lyman,] have a partnership. She always defers to his decisions.

Yet, at least on the page, Lyman seems so broken.

Oh no, he's not. In the way Chelcie [Ross] is playing him, he is, emotionally. But he never lets you see that until the very end. He never lets you see that. He's the ambassador. He's the politician. He's in charge of the house. This is a 1950s marriage. I'm his partner. I'm the backbone. I'm the one who made him. I think the power of the play lies in your misunderstanding of the characters. I think that you come to believe that these people are what you see during the majority of the play, and it's so stunning when they're revealed to be totally different people from the people you believe you've gotten to know.

It must be a relief for you to not have to speak those subverbal, confused lines of Violet's. I could never imagine how you got to the point where you could do that.

You know, that wasn't hard for me.

No?

Unh-unh. Isn't that interesting? It wasn't hard. You know what's hard? Speaking Jon Robin Baitz's language. And one of the things I think is that we're just from two different parts of the country, so his phrasing is not my natural phrasing. And Tracy Letts's play was so easy for me because he and I grew up in the same geographical area. [Letts is from Oklahoma, Dunagan from Texas.]

Still, Violet has some strange lines.

All the ugly words I said [in August: Osage County]—I don't speak that way, and I hope I'm not a cruel person. That was one of the reasons why I didn't want to do the play. When we did the initial reading, I was so shaken that I couldn't talk about it. I said, "I can't. It's a horrible play. All the people are terrible." I didn't mean horrible in terms of quality. I meant the people are vicious. It's just unbelievable how awful they are, and that's one of the reasons that I first turned it down. But for some reason it's not that hard to access that rage. I don't know where it comes from. I had a happy childhood. I had a wonderful mother and father. There is just—I'm able to access it. And actually, they had another actress in mind. They did a reading and they didn't hire her because they said she couldn't be mean enough. Isn't that funny? But that wasn't hard for me. It wasn't hard in the performance. It was hard in the living of your life. Your own life.

I was going ask you about that. How could you do that role night after night and not let the poison leech into your life?

It did, according to my son. You know, I didn't think it did. But he laughed when I said I didn't think it did. He said, "Mom, you were really hard to get along with when you were doing that play." And I was sorry about that. I certainly didn't want to be hard to get along with, but maybe I've got to be hard to get along with as Polly, too, because Polly is right. Polly is so right about everything. She's that kind of a person. And I've known women like that. Several. Some in my own family. You know, someone brought in [The Way I See It, the autobiography of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's daughter Patti Davis], and I read half of it and put it aside and said, "You know what? This isn't helpful, because Patti Davis paints a portrait of Nancy Reagan as being physically and mentally abusive." And I didn't think it was helpful to think of Polly in those terms.

At the same time, Polly is a disciple of Nancy Reagan. There's that line in the play when she says, "This is what Nancy taught me."

Yes: "Order, precision, discipline." Well, maybe that hasn't served Polly, you know? It's all in the acting, I think, and there are certainly parts where I'm mean when pushed to the brink. And there are parts where I'm catty. One of the examples that I'd give is my relationship with Tripp, which is quite loving. And I'm trying to get some information out of him. We have a scene together and he says, "Let me just say this. You're very hard on [Polly and Lyman's daughter, Brooke]. You don't like weakness." And I say, "Yes, I don't like weakness. I've tried to push her, to be hard on her, so that she wouldn't sink. I don't know if I've succeeded. You can die from too much sensitivity in this world." In other words, I've tried to toughen her up so that she could handle the world, because I've had to do that for Lyman. You can die from too much sensitivity. I'm defending Polly because I think she comes at it from a really different angle from Violet. She's always a strong, ambitious woman, and much more in control. Order, precision, discipline, like Nancy Reagan—but not the vicious Nancy Reagan that's painted by Patti Davis. I mean, physical abuse! I'd never have hit my children. I feel quite confident of that. Ever.

Read part two of the interview.

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