Jon Robin Baitz's knack for unearthing and reconciling family secrets was rewarded with a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nomination for "Other Desert Cities." The play merging humor and drama gets its Washington debut at Arena Stage with a cast headed by Tony Award nominees Larry Bryggman as Lyman Wyeth and Helen Carey as his wife, Polly. It is directed by Kyle Donnelly, a former Arena Stage associate artistic director and Helen Hayes Award winner, who now heads the Master of Fine Arts program in acting at the University of California, San Diego.

"Polly is a terrific character and the engine that has held Lyman together," said Carey, a Washington favorite and winner of multiple Helen Hayes Awards and nominations. "She's a forceful woman and very layered, as are all the characters. They have different political views and specific relationships to one another. Henry, the oldest son, is the subject of a memoir her daughter Brooke has written. She is not old enough to know the toll that its publication will take on the family and their relationships.

"Polly can be warm or chilly and one makes discoveries about her. You learn about her sibling relationship with Silda, her sister, who also has secrets. No matter what Silda has done in the past, it is good of Polly to take her in."

Carey is a veteran of Broadway, film and television, as well as an Irish Times/SB Award nominee for her role as Kate Keller, the mother, in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

'Other Desert Cities'
» Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
» When: Friday throug May 26
» Info: $40 to $85; 202-488-3300;

"We broke all records in Dublin," she said. "They fell in love with the irony of a play about World War II juxtaposed with demonstrations in the city because of the Iraq War. The playwright and his son-in-law, Daniel Day Lewis, were both there lamenting the fact that wars have settled nothing."

She comes to Arena Stage direct from Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the starring role of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."

"Mary Tyrone is a role I performed earlier at Arena," she said. "Even though it's one of the great American plays, I didn't want to do it for a number of years because the character is immersed in darkness and unredeeming qualities. I had wanted to work with director Robin Phillips at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, but didn't have the opportunity at that time. When I learned he was coming here to direct it, I had to give in."

A native of Boston, Carey initially hoped to become a ballerina until she wandered into the theater department of Marquette University. Forty years after the head of the department encouraged her to audition for Guthrie Theater, she continues to perform there regularly in such classic plays as "All My Sons," "The Cherry Orchard," "Death of a Salesman" and "The Winter's Tale." Her Broadway credits include "Pygmalion," "Hedda Gabler" and "London Assurance," Dion Boucicault's comedy which debuted at Covent Garden in 1841 and for which she earned both a Tony Award nomination and a Theatre World Award.

At Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, she has played leading roles in "Antony and Cleopatra," "Macbeth," "Volpone" and "Major Barbara," receiving Helen Hayes Awards for the latter two. Her film credits include "Julie & Julia," "The Next Three Days" and "Black Knight," and she also can be seen on reruns of "House," "Without a Trace," "Seinfeld," "Law and Order" and other popular television shows.

"The stage actor has more control and the ability to work in sequence, so you come with your performance in your head," she said. "There is a different atmosphere and perspective in film and television where you work in quick spaces not knowing how it will all come together."

For the next month, Carey looks forward to performing in the show that reminds her of Greek plays of tragic proportions.

"Jon Robin Baitz has created a well-written play with tight language," she said. "After seeing 'Other Desert Cities,' you will think twice before making snap judgments about your family. It's kind of a mystery story. You come away with more questions and answers and wonder: How does that marriage survive?"