In the opening moments of Joel Pierson's new play Mourning Lori, the character David has an animated argument with his mother, Lori. At stake is whether or not David is mentally ill.
David tells his mother that he's just been under a lot of pressure lately but that things are looking up for him. His mother counters with the fact that she is dead.
Mourning Lori, which opens Oct. 4, at the John Waldron Arts Center's Rose Firebay, is a family drama in a postmodern wrapper.
The setup is simple. Lori has died - committed suicide, in fact - and her family gathers in Chicago to grieve and plan the funeral.There is the father, Michael (played by James Behmke); Talya, his responsible daughter (Whitney Christiansen); Carolyn, the other daughter (Jenn Robison Taylor); and David (Aaron Moon), Hollywood screenwriter and diagnosed schizophrenic.
And hovering through all the scenes of anger, guilt and grief is Lori herself (Dana Dyer Pierson), commenting on what she sees her family going through, unseen by everyone except David. Is he psychic, like he says, or just delusional?
"I'd be happiest if there's a lot of argument about it on the way home from the play," laughs Joel Pierson. While he claims he knows what's really going on, he doesn't share. It's a piece of "fruitful ambiguity," he says.
Pierson is directing Mourning Lori, in addition to having written the script, a process that began three years ago when he attended a funeral himself. Now, two weeks into the rehearsal process, he and his cast have been fine-tuning the play's themes, finding the right mix of pathos and humor in the play's morbid premise.
Wait a minute - funny?
"My big goal was not to make it a downer," he says. "There are moments when you are laughing."
It's true. In addition to David's manic behavior, the first act ends with a show-stealing performance by actor Daniel Grundmann that must be seen to be believed.
To preserve the surprise, let it be said that his role is on the one hand hilarious and on the other a disturbing illustration of David's deteriorating mental state.
As an onstage presence, Lori forms the heart of the play.
"Everyone else in the family has defined him- or herself based on what Mom thought and did," Pierson says. "Dad is not Dad but the caregiver. The son is not the son but the secret-keeper. The daughter is not the daughter - she's the crisis manager.
"All because of what Mom was. And now that Mom is gone, everybody has got to redefine themselves. And they're not sure how to do that after so many years."
Changing roles is nothing new for Pierson. Mourning Lori is his first time directing a play he wrote on stage, but he's been overseeing radio theater productions for years with his company Mind's Ear Productions.
In addition to Mourning Lori, several radio plays and Cannibal! The Musical, Mind's Ear created the official audio tour for Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Directing for the stage is a departure for Pierson. For one thing, actors have to worry about where they're standing, not just what they're doing. And Mourning Lori is "a very emotional play, and with emotion your whole body goes into it," Pierson says.
So one thing he's given the actors is the freedom to move when it seems natural to them - and the freedom to make small tweaks to his script.
"I have just really trusted these folks to give it their all," he says, "and they have done it."
The cast of Lori still has several weeks to go before opening night. Pierson and his actors are working hard to get there.
"I'm so proud of my cast," he says. "I'm so excited about seeing it come to life."
He also is grateful to Marc Tschida of the Bloomington Area Arts Council. Tschida "has been an amazing friend to this production," Pierson says.
"I want people in the seats," he says. "I want people to see the show, because there have been moments when we've been rehearsing when the cast turns to each other and says, 'I've got goosebumps,' or 'I've been through that.'"
Here's hoping the audience feels those goosebumps, too.
Jesse Darland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go:
Mourning Lori runs Oct. 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13 at 8:00 p.m., with a special matinee performance on Oct. 7 at 2:00 p.m., at the Rose Firebay in the John Waldron Arts Center. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door; student and senior tickets are $10. Advance tickets may be purchased at http://www.bloomingtonarts.info. Mourning Lori contains strong language and adult themes and is recommended for children 13 and above.