'Desert Cities' Is Right at Home at Arena
For Kyle Donnelly, directing playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s scathing, smart and intense family drama, “Other Desert Cities,” at Arena Stage in the in-the-round Fichandler must seem a little and a lot like a homecoming.
She was last at Arena directing another family play, “Ah Wilderness,” a distinctly and surprisingly sunny and warm play from Eugene O’Neill, that master of theatrical and autobiographical dark family dysfunction (see “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”).
“That was a little different, to be sure,” said Donnelly in a phone interview. She has said that “Wilderness”, an example of theater as a wish, was a kind of fiction that acted as a counterpoint to the personal realism of O’Neill’s other plays about family, the one he experienced painfully in life as well.
Family is a good point to consider when it comes to Donnelly and Arena Stage—this is the place where she served as associate artistic director at Arena from 1992 to 1998 and where over 30 years she has directed 22 plays.
“It is like a home,” said Donnelly, who lives in California. “I’ve spend a major part of my professional life here, working with wonderful actors and design professionals. There was a group of wonderful actors to work with back then—Richard Bauer, Stanley Anderson, Robert Prosky, Tana Hicken, Randy Danson. “
Donnelly is considered by many something of an actor’s director. “It’s a collaborative art, this putting on of plays, but the actors are front and center, and that’s especially true in this play. Doing this play in the round makes for a different challenge for the actors. It changes the focus, where people are on stage, who’s hearing and seeing them in what way. So in some sense, it becomes a little bit of a different play. But what you really want to and have an opportunity to do is to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy with the audience, as if they were right there in the family living room with all this 'drama' going on.”
“In Washington, this play really resonates,” she said. “For one thing, the parents in the play haves been written as friends of the Reagans, among a group of politically savvy people in Southern California. And there’s the role of the media—it involves high-profile people dealing publicly with tragedy and scandal.”
If you’ve been going to Arena and plays in Washington for any length of time, Donnelly’s name resonates, it’s a resume full of remarkable and memorable theater moments. She had astonishing success with stagings of “The Women,” “The Miser,” “Misalliance,” “Polk County,” Tennessee Williams’s “Summer and Smoke,” “Shakespeare in Hollywood” and perhaps most notably, a perfect production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa”, which received a Helen Hayes Award for Best Resident production.
Her first play at Arena was Moliere’s “School for Wives.” She has said that watching Friel’s “Lughnasa” on stage “broke my heart.” Hers was not the only heart that broke.
Donnelly founded Actors’ Center in Chicago, an acting studio, in the 1980s which may account for her reputation as doing well with actors. Certainly that aspect shows up in “Desert Cities,” where the likes of Helen Carey, who’s also worked many times at Arena, Martha Hackett, Larry Bryggman, Emily Donahoe and Scott Drumond give searing and intense performances.
“I’m going to be slowing down a little,” she said. “I’m a mother of a teenaged daughter, and I’d like to be there for her more, lending some guidance through high school. I won’t be going on the road as much.”
“Other Desert Cities” runs through May 26.