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THIS OLD MAN : 'My Mom's Dad' Makes a Point of Understanding Grandfather

February 18, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Maddie's yuppie parents are about as nurturing as their electronic voice mail ("Leave your crisis after the beep"), and she changes addresses more often than her peers change their taste in clothes. She's independent, insecure and in transition; a work-in-progress trying to piece together the baffling jigsaw puzzle that is her life.

And then along comes this absurdly old man, who throws the whole picture out of whack. Or so it seems to Maddie.

"My Mom's Dad," South Coast Repertory's 25th annual Educational Touring Production, examines--from a child's perspective--the link between the very young and the very old. The 45-minute show, which is touring Southland schools until May, will be presented in two rare public performances this Saturday and Feb. 27 at South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court as part of the mall's "Salute to the Arts" celebration.

"My Mom's Dad," written by Richard Hellesen, with music and lyrics by Michael Silversher, is the third SCR touring show to be created by the pair. That team also created "Gift Rap," a 1990 play about giving, and 1991's "Face2Face," which primarily addressed racial intolerance. "My Mom's Dad" follows the standard formula of most SCR touring shows: It features four adult actors, runs about 45 minutes and is de signed for audiences in grades kindergarten through sixth. But Hellesen said it was the pair's most difficult assignment to date, requiring almost a year of work.

"Something like intolerance is a big subject, one that can be very in your face," while the relationship between generations is a topic that "is much more subtle," said Hellesen, a Fullerton resident. "It doesn't lend itself to big and glitzy."

Against an oversized jigsaw puzzle set by SCR resident designer Dwight Richard Odle, "My Mom's Dad" follows Maddie as she learns to tolerate, and ultimately appreciate, the presence of her recently widowed grandfather, who has come to live with her family. With his ridiculous clothes and boring stories, Grandpa (or "my mom's dad," as Maddie refers to him) is an unfamiliar, unwelcome presence in Maddie's life. If she had her way--which she'd tell you she never does--he'd pack up his corny jokes and catch the first bus to the old folk's home, pronto.

For the first time in the program's history, the touring show directly addresses the county's growing Asian community, Hellesen said. It is through Maddie's Vietnamese friend James and his in-house grandmother that she first glimpses the gifts that age can pass on to youth. Vietnamese dialogue is sprinkled throughout the show, and in one of the visual high points, the cast retells a Southeast Asian folk tale about a young princess who, like Maddie, first rejects but is later enriched by the influence of an old man.

Developmentally, the show's turning point came last summer when Hellesen, Silversher, Odle and show director John-David Keller took the script to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in the mountains outside Provo, Utah, for a workshop in its Children's Theatre Lab. In the course of the six-day workshop, the original script was entirely rewritten.

"It was 24-hour, write-on-your-feet theater," recalled Hellesen.

Even Hellesen's trip home didn't break the creative flow, he said.

"The morning I left, Michael and I were standing in the kitchen talking about our own families, and we got to talking about how much of our parents and our grandparents were still in us, and how much of that goes through you to your children," said Hellesen, whose children are 6 and 2.

"It turns out that both of us had tailors in our family," he continued. "On the plane, I started thinking about that, and writing." The results were the basis for "This Was," a tune in which the grandfather shares parts of his own life's puzzle with Maddie.

Hellesen also teaches playwriting at Cal State Fullerton and in SCR's Adult Conservatory. He wrote "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" for the SCR's Young Conservatory Players and two plays for adult audiences performed at South Coast Repertory: "Once in Arden" (1989-90 Mainstage season), a historical drama about Polish actress and one-time Orange County resident Helena Modjeska, and "Moonshadow" (Second Stage, 1990-91), which dealt with a young man's emotional state as he prepares to leave for war.

Because of its theme, "My Mom's Dad" reaches adult audiences in a way that past SCR touring shows generally haven't, Hellesen said. Or, as Keller put it, "it pushes the buttons of anyone who has feeling toward their family."

"Generally, when you go to a kids' show, it's the children watching the show and the adults watching the kids watching," Hellesen observed. "This one, the adults watch too."

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