Every actor has a singular approach to getting into character. Actress Anne Gottlieb is taking it a step further than usual, perhaps, with Brooke Wyeth, the author she plays in “Other Desert Cities.”
“I’ve spent some time writing her book,” Gottlieb says.
The book in question is a scorched-earth family memoir that triggers the action in Jon Robin Baitz’s drama, which begins performances Friday at SpeakEasy Stage Company under the direction of Scott Edmiston.
Baitz penned a couple of short passages from the book that are read aloud during the play, whose eight-month run on Broadway ended in June. When rehearsals for the New England premiere began at SpeakEasy a few weeks ago, Gottlieb decided to get to know Brooke better by writing more, in longhand.
“I’ve been writing pretty consistently, almost every morning. I’m not going to show it to anyone, except maybe Scott,” Gottlieb says.
How many words has she written? “I’m not going to tell you. It would put too much pressure on.”
The character is already feeling the pressure. Brooke’s first novel was a hit, but the second one just wouldn’t come. She’s been through a breakdown and a divorce. Now she’s penned a memoir exposing the dark secrets surrounding her radical older brother, Henry, who disappeared decades ago, leaving a suicide note. And her family is not exactly delighted to hear about the book when they gather for Christmas 2004 at her parents’ home in Palm Springs, Calif.
“I think she’s been struggling for years and years, trying to understand her depression, what’s the root of it and how to work through it,” says Gottlieb, who won a 2011 Elliot Norton Award as outstanding actress for her roles in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” at New Repertory Theatre and “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)” at SpeakEasy.
“She’s trying to find a way to live. This book is a way to start to live,” Gottlieb says. “It’s more than just, ‘I want to write a book.’ It’s, ‘I want to get to the bottom of something that I don’t understand and seems to be affecting every part of my life, even 25 years after the fact.’ ”
Brooke’s parents are Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Munson Hicks and Karen MacDonald), doppelgängers for — and pals of — Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Lyman is a genial former actor who chaired the Republican National Committee. Polly is the tough-as-nails, well-coiffed power behind the throne. They were shamed by Henry’s involvement with a violent cult in the 1970s, which caused a rift between them and many of their powerful friends.
As “Other Desert Cities” opens, Brooke’s tell-all book is set for a pre-publication excerpt in The New Yorker. Brooke wants her parents to read the memoir in manuscript first. She seems to want their approval, or at least their acquiescence, which is hardly forthcoming. Even her surviving younger brother, Trip (Christopher M. Smith), a reality-TV producer, wonders if she should think harder about the damage it will cause.
“Jon Robin Baitz refers to [Brooke] as dangerous,” Edmiston says. “In some ways, she’s our hero because she’s a truth-teller, but she’s also very damaged, and she can be very selfish. It’s one thing to say, ‘I want to talk about the truth of our family.’ It’s another to say, ‘I’m going to publish it in The New Yorker.’ . . . We’re rooting for her, but sometimes we also doubt her motives.”
On hand, too, for the Wyeths’ not-so-happy holiday is Brooke’s aunt Silda (Nancy E. Carroll), Polly’s tart-tongued liberal sister, fresh out of rehab.
Edmiston served as dramaturg on some Baitz plays, including “Ten Unknowns,” while working at the Huntington Theatre Company. Edmiston is 50, Baitz — nicknamed Robbie — is 51, and they share a cultural frame of reference, Edmiston says.
“We both grew up during the ’60s and ’70s in a way that shaped our values without necessarily taking part,” he says. “There’s a split that happened in American culture in the Vietnam era and through Watergate. There was a certain unity prior to that, but then there was a generational split and cultural split that ultimately led us on the path to red states and blue states.
“Robbie’s always been interested in when the personal becomes political and the moral choices of the individual and how that shapes society,” Edmiston says. “It’s never been as artfully accomplished as in this play for him. We’re telling the story of this one particular family, but at the same time catching some of the zeitgeist of the American family.”
He notes the Wyeths’ psychic scarring is even on display in the set, designed by Janie E. Howland.
“It’s very much mid-century modern, in part because that’s the architecture of Palm Springs, but I also think it’s significant in terms of the trauma of this family,” Edmiston says. “There is a certain part of them that has been trapped in that moment when the brother committed suicide, and the house still has that ’60s, ’70s kind of [look] about it.
“They haven’t moved past the trauma of that event, and you can kind of see it in their house,” he says. “There’s a certain way in which they’re trapped in time there.”