Carefully guarding a public image is a rare art form in today's technology-infested society.
This is one of the central themes of Goodman Theatre's fantastic and far-reaching character study of a noted family of former fame, in "Other Desert Cities," which opened this week for a far too-short Chicago run until Feb. 17.
Though Jon Robin Baitz's two hour and 20 minute, one-intermission play is billed as a "political potboiler," there's far more to this Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award-nominated stage story which played on Broadway in November 2011.
With a colorful sprinkling of famous names dropped during the characters' conversations, from Dinah Shore, Bob Hope and Totie Fields to the Bush Family, Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra and NBC newsman Chet Huntley, connections play an important role with this cast of just five powerful players.
And referenced most prominently are Ronald and Nancy Reagan as "close friends" of the play's central couple, who seem to be closely modeled after the Hollywood-turned-White House first couple of the 1980s.
Set on Christmas Eve, 2004, the Palm Springs lavish hideway estate of Lyman and Polly Wyeth is filled with nervous energy that seems anything but holiday spirit driven.
Actress Deanna Dunagan is stellar as the frigid and controlled Polly, whose Hollywood years before retirement were filled with working with her more free-spirited sister Silda, writing a series of successful bubblegum films for MGM about a central character called "Hillary," paralleling the "Gidget" films of the 1960s.
Polly's husband Lyman, played fittingly by the larger-than-life Chelcie Ross, had a successful movie star career at Warner Bros., primarily typecast in war films, before turning to politics as the head of the GOP, and later, an appointed ambassador.
The cause of the unease on this Christmas Eve is the return of their once addled daughter Brooke, a firm performance by Tracy Michelle Arnold, who has brought the manuscript for her new book, which is based on her own family's secrets.
Enduring the stress and emotional family tug-of-war is the couple's son Trip, played with wit and likeable expression by John Hoogenakker, a soft soul doesn't want to pick sides between his sister and parents.
Both comic and painful moments also come courtesy of Polly's sister Silda aka "Aunt Silda," captured with vim and jittery vigor by Linda Kimbrough, who is newly sober and dependent to live at the family's estate.
For the Chicago premiere, newly appointed Goodman Artistic Associate Henry Wishcamper directs this fine all-Chicago cast, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats until the final moments and a big reveal.
Just a chance to spend two hours peering at the lavish set dreamed up by the creative team for "Other Desert Cities," including Thomas Lynch set designer and David Lander's lighting, matched by Kaye Voyce's costume designer, is a ticket reward even before the first words of dialogue are uttered.
Tickets are $25 to $86 at GoodmanTheatre.org or (312) 443-3800 or at the box office at 170 North Dearborn.