by Tony Adler
In the first part of our conversation with Deanna Dunagan, she focused on her role as Polly Wyeth, the tightly wound matriarch of Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, which opened this week at Goodman Theatre. Here, Dunagan talks about life after the Tony Award she won for her performance as completely unhinged matriarch Violet Weston in Tracy Letts's August: Osage County.
So let's talk about you as not-Polly. How's it been since the the Tony Award?
Well, you know, it's interesting: it wasn't as different as it might've been, perhaps. A couple things happened. One is that I continued to do August: Osage County for another year and a half, so that took me away from what might've come to me immediately after winning a Tony.
Well, I mean, out of sight out of mind. I wasn't able to accept any other work that came my way for a year and a half, because I was employed. There was a pilot I made that would've changed my life drastically. It was a sitcom, which I never thought I'd be involved in, but I loved it. It was called Big D, and it was about a Dallas matriarch. I had a blond wig, wore St. John suits and was very manipulative but very funny. I thought it was a really, really smart sitcom—and, boy, it was shot before a live audience, so it was almost like a performance a week. You rehearsed and then you did it, so it was very like theater in that way. But it didn't get picked up. And then I got a recurring role in Unforgettable, which was with Poppy Montgomery. It wasn't picked up for a second season, but they're bringing it back next summer. I play [Montgomery's] mother. It's based on—you know the story of Marilu Henner? You know her, from Taxi?
She has that condition where you can't forget anything in your life.
It sounds like a play.
It does, it's just fascinating. [Henner] played my sister on one segment, and I wasn't going to say anything. I thought I was going to be cool about it. But she came right in saying, "You know, I just saw a clerk at Bloomingdales who waited on me 15 years ago, and I said, 'I remember you. You sold me such and such and you had on this such and such dress and I was with so and so, then we went for lunch at the blah-blah." She can recall everything about her life. So Poppy Montgomery supposedly had this condition, and I played her mother who was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's—that was supposed to be the hook. And I was very interested because I have a cousin who married a guy with hereditary Alzheimer's, and all three of her children have it. And it's just tragic. They all showed symptoms in their early 40s and now one of them is hospitalized. And so I was very interested in this, but they wrote my character like a little old lady who forgets things.
Less like a disease than some sort of quirk?
Yeah. They didn't explore it. There's rage in Alzheimer's, there are all kinds of peculiar behaviors. And they really weren't interested in that. Now that they're bringing it back, they called my agent to ask about my availability, and I felt, like, they have to kill me at least. Or they could just say, "She died." I don't know. My life is changed in that I don't have to go audition around town. They just offered me this role at the Goodman. I didn't have to audition for it—thank God, because I probably wouldn't have gotten it. But otherwise, it hasn't been as life altering as you'd maybe think it would be.
Do you still spend as much time in Chicago?
I'm here all the time.
Oh really? I pictured you in New York more.
I'm never in New York unless they put me up a couple of days to shoot. My mother died last year, in March, and I was with her for about five months before she died, in Texas, and then we had to do the estate sale and get the house in order. So I've been away from Chicago for personal reasons.
So you were being a daughter.
I hope this doesn't sound unfeeling, but does that experience play into how you approach the role of Polly?
I don't know. There are times—I can't answer that, Tony. We have my mother's blue-bonnet coasters on our set. I brought them to rehearsal and asked if we could use them at rehearsal, and the set designer used them on the set. There are times when Brooke attacks me as a mother that—I don't know. I can't answer your question. Sorry.
What sort of household did you grow up in?
There were five of us. I was the oldest, 15 years older than my little brother, and we're very close. But I was out of the house by the time I was 18. But I did go back home for summers. I was at home a lot, and it was heartbreaking—I don't have the words to tell you how hard it was to leave my hometown and my house that I grew up in and put it on the market. And to know that I will never go back there until they take my ashes back. I loved and do love my family. We are extremely close. All of us. They come to all my plays, usually all together. There's a thing running on Theater Mania where I say that my mother was like Polly. Well, she was nothing like Polly, but she was the first woman school-board member in our town, and she got the county library built, and started to get the garden club to landscape the whole town so that it wasn't just barren desert. And she became the president of the Monahans Sandhills State Park. She and my dad got that park built. My dad was an amazing man who helped develop that part of the country and brought television to west Texas. He was a Coca Cola bottler and a banker, a Democrat who became a Republican, but who wrote and said that he'd never give them any money as long as they supported right-to-life. And so they were really, really unusual and amazing people. I'm a liberal. My brothers are both conservatives and the three sisters are liberals. So we have a division in our family, like they have in the Wyeth family. Agree to disagree.