• 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.