Jon Robin Baitz had been an acclaimed playwright of such works as "A Fair Country" before he made the switch to movies and television. He wrote for "The West Wing" and "Alias" before he became the creator and executive producer of "Brother & Sisters," a popular and respected show that ran for five years on ABC.
His play "Other Desert Cities" came to Broadway in 2011 and caused a sensation.
"I think it's Jon Robin Baitz re-discovering theater after getting away from it to work in television," said Greg Leaming.
Leaming is directing the Asolo Repertory Theatre's production of "Other Desert Cities," which opens Friday.
Although Asolo bills the show as a comedy, Leaming's description reveals its harrowing undercurrent.
A young woman who has very liberal political views visits her parents, high-profile Republicans and former Hollywood personalities.
"The father is a former B-movie actor who has followed his friend Ronald Reagan from Hollywood to Washington and become an ambassador," Leaming said.
People who follow Reagan-era Hollywood and Washington will recognize the character.
"The father is John Gavin," said J. Kenneth Campbell, who plays the role in the Asolo Rep production.
The character is only loosely based on Gavin, who's best-known movie role was as Janet Leigh's boyfriend in "Psycho."
The differences between Gavin and the father become quickly apparent in the play, Campbell said. The daughter plans to write a memoir about her life in her high-profile family, which includes the writer's long-dead deceased brother, a '60s radical involved with a Weather Underground kind of group. Her parents vehemently object to the memoir, partly because she will reveal the bitter political divide in the family but also because she will revisit a painful and horrific incident that brought shame to the family.
The Broadway staging of the play, directed by Joe Mantello, was packed with stars, including Judith Light, Stacey Keach, Rachel Griffiths and Stockard Channnig. Critics praised the subtlety and complexity of Baitz' writing.
The Asolo production obviously won't have such big names, but Campbell, a long-time TV and movie actor, will be a familiar to a lot of people. He's had roles in dozens of movies, and in such TV shows as "LA Law," "Frasier" and "Cheers." He's often cast as unsavory characters
Like Baitz, "Other Desert Cities" marks his return to theater after years working in television.
"This is my retirement, actually," Campbell said. "I have a son at Eckerd College, so I'm getting to see him."
Campbell's loving being on stage and getting to stretch his acting muscles.
"In Los Angeles, you're either a villain or victim, and I don't play a victim very well," he said. "To be back on that stage, and to get that immediacy from an audience, that's really where I live."
Details: Jan. 17-Feb. 27 at the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: Various. Tickets: $21-$73. Information: 941-351-8000, www.asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.
J. Kenneth Campbell, Lauren Klein, and Lucy Lavely in Asolo Rep's production of "Other Desert Cities." Photo by Frank Atura.