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The line between life and art is whisper thin.
Julie Jensen's "Last Lists of My Mad Mother," currently being reprised by Pygmalion Theatre Company, reminds us of this fact on two levels.
First, the play was inspired by Jensen's experiences with her own mother, who was slipping into the netherworld of dementia. Somehow she was able to translate her frustration and loss into a series of theatrical moments that are poetic and pungent, profound and funny almost simultaneously.
The second level is the universality of the play's subject. Death is the destination of this train of life on which we are all riding. Ironically, the day I wrote this review, I also attended a funeral. As Sabina says in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," "In the midst of life, we are in the midst of death." Whether we are aging ourselves or coping with an elderly parent, how we choose to deal with this reality can make or break us.
Dot, the daughter in "Last Lists," chooses to treat it with a mix of concern, resilience and humor. She has come home to care for her mother, who is "on the decline, rapidly leaking her beans." Ma was a bright, opinionated teacher who "carried out a lifelong war against lazy speech. ... People in town actually believed that it was the intransitive verb that got her." Even trapped in the confusion of Alzheimer's, Ma insists they keep a schedule: It's "her way of keeping the holes in her mind from showing," Dot tells us.
Dot is both the narrator and a participant in the play, which gives her an opportunity to reflect on what's happening and share those insights with the audience as they happen, an intriguing double perspective. Her allies in her struggle to stay sane as her mother loses that battle are her sense of humor, which is very helpful, and her absent sister, who isn't. Sis keeps in touch by telephone, offering support couched in platitudes like "negative energy is like a stop sign on the highway of life," and "everything happens for the best." "Your life is a Hallmark card," Dot remarks.
This production's three actresses are so in tune that they function as a real family. As Sis, Holly Fowers is so well-intentioned, but totally out of touch, that we feel more sorrow than anger for her. Barbara Smith's Ma subtly disintegrates physically and mentally as we watch. Her walk becomes a shuffle and her gaze increasingly vacant. Even during blackouts between scenes, her movement remains in character, and costumer Teresa Sanderson has dressed her in baggy clothes that look as if she is fading away.
But the glue that binds "Last Lists" is Jeanette Puhich's Dot, who transitions in an instant from narrator to character and just as smoothly connects her emotional fluctuations from resentment to compassion, stubborn desire to control the unraveling to understanding that she can't.
Robin Wilks-Dunn's firm, but unobtrusive, direction moves the action fluidly around the defined playing areas of John Wayne Cook's stark set with its backdrop of unintelligible words. Megan McCormick's responsive lighting carries us in and out of scenes.
In the most touching scene, Dot drives Ma to see a dead deer and tries to tell her mother what she means to her. Although Ma can't understand the words, somehow the two women manage to communicate. As they leave they both say, "Goodbye, my deer." We know the "dear" they mean isn't the same.
Julie Jensen's "Last Lists of My Mad Mother" captures the bittersweet experience of caring for an aging parent.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 West Broadway, Salt Lake City.
When • Reviewed Nov. 4; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 19 with an additional matinee Nov. 19 at 3 p.m.
Running time • 75 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets • $20 with discounts for students. Call 355-ARTS or visit http://www.arttix.org for tickets or information.