As far as Jeanne Skattum is concerned, the mission of the Rochester Repertory Theatre has hasn’t changed since she co-founded the alternative theater in 1984.
“The Rep’s mission has been to introduce audiences to things they might not see, in an intimate setting, that will cause them to think,” she said. “Getting the conversation going has always been the crux.”
The latest conversation starter from Skattum is “Other Desert Cities,” a drama that opens Friday at the Rep and runs through March 19.
The play, by Jon Robin Baitz, is at first glance one of those everybody-comes-home-at-the-holidays-and-nobody-gets-along dramas that we’ve seen so many times. But there is a political element to this story that Skattum said is revealing in this current election season.
“It’s particularly relevant to where we are right now,” she said. “You see in the prism of this family the whole polarized dynamic of today, although that’s not entirely why I chose this show. I chose it because it’s a great script.”
“Other Desert Cities” takes place in 2004 in the Palm Springs home of the wealthy Polly and Lyman Wyeth, who had movie and political connections to the Reagans. “They’re good friends of Nancy and Ronnie,” Skattum said. Lyman, in fact, served as an ambassador during the Reagan administration.
Enter their daughter, Brooke, who is coming home for the first time in six years, carrying the manuscript of her new book. It’s a memoir that reveals a family tragedy and places blame. The parents are aghast. “It’s going to bring up the worst time of their life,” Skattum said.
Also in the mix are a Polly’s sister, who is just out of rehab and living with the Wyeths, and a son, Trip, a television producer.
As director, Skattum said she auditioned actors together to try to replicate the family dynamic. “I had them read with one another to see how they interacted,” she said.
In the cast are Leisa Luis Grill and Joe O’Toole as Polly and Lyman, with Kelly Hain as Brooke, Dylon Starr as the son and Missy Hagen as Polly’s sister.
The play was recommended to Skattum by Larry Sinak, president of the Rep’s board of directors. “As soon as I finished reading the script, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to direct this play,'” she said.
What: “Other Desert Cities”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, then 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through March 19
Where: Rochester Repertory Theatre
Tickets: $22 adults, $20 senior citizens and students ($14 on Thursdays); 507-289-1737