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Raw memories in 'Rest'

Samuel D. Hunter play about dementia, running through April at SCR, hit close to home for writer, producer.

April 03, 2014|By Rhea Mahbubani
  • Actors, counterclockwise from left, Lynn Milgrim, Sue Cremin and Rob Nagle during rehearsals for "Rest" at South Coast Repertory on Wednesday.
Actors, counterclockwise from left, Lynn Milgrim, Sue… (KEVIN CHANG, Daily…)

Olivia Johnson was 30,000-plus feet in the air when she first read the script for "Rest."

Tears coursed down her cheeks as she learned about dementia patient Gerald and his wife, Etta, en route to San Francisco for Thanksgiving.

The story hit too close to home for the Tustin Hills resident and South Coast Repertory board member, whose mother was struggling with the same affliction and, like the play's protagonist, lived in a senior center. Alice Gedikian was weeks away from her 100th birthday, and her health was rapidly declining.

"My family's emotions were right on the surface," said Johnson, 67. "I said, 'Oh, really, Martin, does it have to be about that?"

She was referring to Martin Benson, SCR's founding artistic director and the director of "Rest," which will be performed at the Costa Mesa venue until April 27. Commissioned by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, it features a group of people in a retirement home. A 91-year-old resident suffering from severe dementia wanders into a blizzard, creating a crisis for the staff and others who live there.

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Toward the end of 2013, Johnson took a long, hard look at her mother and the play and decided to sign on as an honorary producer.

"I said to myself, 'She's doing OK,'" she recalled. "I was planning her birthday. I knew that she was going to continue to slip, and I knew I was taking a chance. But ultimately I decided that I had to have faith. And the more I read, the more I realized this was meant to be."

Hunter, though currently based in New York City, hails from a small town in northern Idaho, where "Rest" takes place. His great-grandmother, Etta Erickson — also the name of a character in the play — lived in a retirement center.

"I only knew her when she was in the late stages of dementia, so I felt like I never got to know the actual woman, as most of her mind had, as a character says in the play, 'receded into the dark,'" he remarked. "So in the play, Etta is the diametric opposite of my grandmother; her mind is still razor-sharp. But her husband, Gerald, has spent the last 12 years slowly sliding into dementia. By the time we meet him, there is barely any of him left.

"The play is, in part, an examination of what it would be like to have the person you love most in the world disintegrate in front of your eyes."

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'A huge, dark question'

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