I've asked many people over the past two months their opinions of The City of Conversation. Given the lively nature of the show's political discussion, it's perhaps no surprise that not everyone agrees about what they appreciate. Everyone does, however, seem to concur about one thing: They love Jean Swift.
Beth Dixon, who portrays that character so beautifully, has heard some of these sentiments. "I had a friend come to see us," Dixon said to me the other night, before curtain, "and she told me, speaking of Jean, 'It's so nice to have someone you like in this play.'" Though Jean's sister, Hester, is the glamorous and attention-seeking one in the family, and Jean appears to be the perennial assistant, Dixon doesn't see Jean as only comic relief - Jean is not less-than. "She's recognized who she is, and has made peace with it."
Dixon's early family life took place in Oberlin, Ohio, home of course to Oberlin College. "It was Midwestern, intellectual, and pretty, with lots of farms in the area," she said. She mentioned that she has a sister, so I couldn't resist asking her views on sisterly dynamics, whether in the play or in her life. "Between sisters there can be a competitive relationship or there can be a conscious decision not to compete." She added: "I had a happy family life growing up."
Dixon attended Oberlin. "There was no theater major then," she remembered, which may be hard for some people to square with the number of accomplished theater people - John Kander, Eric Bogosian, Julie Taymor - who spent time in the town. "When I was there, plays were put on by other groups," Dixon said. One of them was the French department, and she became a French major.
While a student, Dixon met the director Tom Brennan, who had been injured in an accident back east and had come to Oberlin to recuperate. "He got me an apprenticeship at Williamstown," Dixon said, referring to the well-known summer theater festival in Massachusetts, which led to her full-fledged professional debut at the McCarter, in Princeton.
Jean's zingers in Anthony Giardina's play give Dixon a chance to display one of her strengths. "Basically, I'm a light comedian," she said. "I think I'm not good at the down-and-dirty stuff." A look at Dixon's program bio displays work of all complexions. There are classics - Major Barbara, A Month in the Country, Therese Raquin - as well as contemporary dramas: a recent production in Philadelphia, for example, of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles.
What kind of play does Dixon prefer? "Well, classics have more roles for older women," Dixon replied. "They also tend to have more of a place for character actors." The cost of professional theater in 2014 often means the production of work with only four or five characters (young couple, old couple, best friend) rather than sprawling epics in which all types have a place around the family table. But whether immense or intimate, plays should keep trying to make room for characters as engaging as Jean Swift.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com