January 20, 2019

Dealing with a Death and ‘Chasing Mem’ries’

How does one come to terms with the death of a spouse after a happy, fulfilling marriage of 57 years? That’s the struggle facing the protagonist, Victoria (Tyne Daly), in Joshua Ravetch’s “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical,” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

We meet Victoria in her attic, where all the action takes place, as she is rummaging through items that bring back bittersweet memories, while her husband’s memorial is being conducted on the back lawn.

During a recent interview, Ravetch said the theme for his play emanated from what he had witnessed in his family after his mother lost his father six years ago, and his aunt lost his uncle eight years ago — both couples that had had lifelong, happy marriages. He found that generation seemed to have these beautiful relationships, which, while they weren’t perfect, managed to endure.

“I watched both of these remarkable women have to embrace the idea that they were going to have to live a certain part of their life without the person that they had been with for a lifetime,” Ravetch said. “And it felt like nobody had really addressed that time in a person’s life. … Your entire life has been formed with somebody, and suddenly you have to embark upon a completely new life, and how that’s even possible, or if it’s possible, and how you cope. And so, it began to interest me.”

He said he developed the play in collaboration with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, whose songs, both original and previously released, are threaded throughout the proceedings. Audiences will certainly recognize “The Way We Were,” which the Bergmans wrote with composer Marvin Hamlisch.

However, the play is billed as “a different kind of musical.” Marilyn Bergman explained that “The songs come from the interior dialogue that the characters are expressing. They are not performance songs, and there are no dancing girls.”

Alan Bergman agreed. “We always wanted to have, in this play, actors who sing, not singers who act,” he said.  “There’s a big difference.”

Accordingly, Victoria expresses her sense of loss through the lyrics of a song titled “Where Do You Start?” She sings, “How do you separate the present from the past? How do you deal with all the things you thought would last? That didn’t last?”

Her son, Mason (Scott Kradolfer), tries to get her to join the memorial service, but she, cynically and often with sharp humor, vents her feeling that the people who came don’t really care about her and are there only out of a sense of obligation.

In addition, it seems that Mason is contending with his own issues. He was engaged to an astronaut who was chosen for a future five-year mission to Mars. After he missed one of her launches and also objected to such a long separation, she broke up with him via an email from space. As a product of the modern world, in which most of his friends are divorcing, he longs for the kind of old-fashioned, committed and secure relationship his parents enjoyed.

Then there is Victoria’s late husband, Franklin (Robert Forster), who appears as a projection of what is going on in her mind. Ravetch said Franklin’s function is to help Victoria take the next step and move forward. “He becomes the facilitator to help her find her way, with wisdom and calm, and love and support. And it’s just a sense that death is not necessarily the end of a relationship; that it continues on in the mind of the survivor.”

This is a Jewish family, and in the play there is mention of Franklin’s bar mitzvah, when he received a dictionary from his father. “We talk about … these ritual rites of passage that bring a family together and give a child a sense of the next step in his life,”
said Ravetch, who grew up Jewish in Los Angeles. “So there’s all those gorgeous ceremonies that I myself lived through and experienced, and they’re very much a part of
this play.”

The playwright stressed that, although he is a secular Jew, many of the good things about him come from having been raised in a Jewish family. In fact, his grandfather was a rabbi. Ravetch commented on why it was important that his characters be Jewish.

“I think that there’s something in Judaism that involves tradition and family and humor and a kind of pact that we’re on this journey together, and we’re going to make it work somehow.

“It feels that being Jewish means you’re a member of a larger community that isn’t focused on what’s going to happen after you die, but is focused really on the quality of the life and the character of honor that you live in the present.”

Ravetch said audiences seem to relate to the story and are starting to bombard him in the theater lobby, telling him they lost their mothers … or their father is in hospice, or even that they can’t make a relationship work.

“It would be lovely if the play said … we’re not alone, and we’re all struggling with the same things at the same moment in this period of American history,” he concluded.

“Chasing Mem’ries” is at the Gil Cates Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through Dec. 17. For tickets and information, call (310) 208-5454 or visit tickets.geffenplayhouse.org.