Sixteen years ago, Dominique Cieri's life turned upside down.
The Connecticut native was 23 years old and working in England as an actress when she got the news that her older brother, Joe, had been in a car accident and broken his neck, severing his motor nerves.
Before Cieri made it home, another tragedy struck the family: While crossing the street to the hospital, her father was hit by a car and seriously injured.
Joe's accident was the springboard for Cieri's first play, "Pitz & Joe." The two-character drama about a young woman and her brain-damaged brother will have its West Coast premiere tonight) at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.
"It's been a really long, drawn-out process," Cieri said of Joe's recovery. "In the beginning, his situation changed from day to day; a priest gave him last rites. He was in a coma for three or four months. The doctors don't want to give you hope 'cause it's a dangerous thing."
Over time, Joe learned to talk, and for the past several years he has lived in an institution in Boston.
"The nerves mend themselves and the patient reaches a new level, then plateaus, then reaches a new level, then plateaus," said Cieri, now based in New Jersey. "It's been tremendously slow. But 10 years ago, he began to make a lot more progress, really started to become someone."
Ironically, the playwright got to know her brother in a way she hadn't before.
"I found a stack of letters from an old girlfriend, explaining his life--and I realized what a terrific writer he was," said Cieri, who got excellent reviews for the 1991 premiere of "Pitz" in New York. "At the time of the accident, he was a heroin addict, a drifter, a loner. His writing is very funny but very tortured. It still haunts me, wondering what he was so afraid of, why he needed to retreat from the world."
Recently, the actress-turned-writer received a videotape of Joe to show to her actors.
"He's come such a long way," said Cieri, who teaches playwriting in New York public schools as part of Theatre for a New Audience. She also teaches in detention centers, jails and shelters in her work with the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.
"Of course, anyone looking at it would think, 'God, poor guy.' But what he sees now is that he's alive, and I've seen him grab onto that more than he ever has, really work at things."
The play is set five years after Joe's accident and--Cieri is quick to point out--really is a reflection of her mother's relationship with Joe: "What's magnified is the relationship of two people, when one person takes on the role of caretaker, and the other person uses that."
In the telling of the story, Pitz and Joe (played by Bari Hochwald and Tony Campisi) flash back to a time before the accident, and we see the young Joe ("So witty and adorable. The one I knew," Cieri said).
The play's time travel was one of its most appealing aspects to director Stephen M. Burdman.
"It's a beautiful blend of the past, and how you work through the past to get to the future," the West Hollywood resident said. "The reason it's so beautiful is that it's deep set in true family love. To me, it's about being alive.
"But it's not goo-goo sweet. It's bittersweet but light, charming. Nicki's writing is inspired; it has the poetry of Bruce Springsteen lyrics."
Nevertheless, Burdman did have some ideas about restructuring the last third of the play, and was pleased when Cieri agreed to make the revisions.
"I was far enough removed from the accident," Cieri said. "When Stephen said there were a few problems, I realized he was right--but I didn't know how I was going to go back, get my hands dirty.
"One night I literally took scissors and tape to it."
Now Cieri is glad she forced herself to rekindle those old emotions: "You really do have to go there, be prepared to have it affect you emotionally, if you're going to move an audience."
\o7 "Pitz & Joe" opens tonight ; Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through May 14; $17, discounts for seniors and students. Tickets and information: (213) 660-8587.\f7