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Jovanka Bach, 69; Her Plays Were Staged in L.A., New York

January 21, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Jovanka Bach, a Southern California playwright and physician whose stream of dramas included a trilogy spanning half a century of turmoil in her ancestral homeland of Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia, has died. She was 69.

Bach, who balanced her two callings for more than 30 years, died Thursday in an Ojai nursing center of complications from ovarian cancer, according to her brother, Danilo Bach. She was diagnosed with the disease three years ago.

Bach emerged as a playwright in 1974 when her first script, "The Matter of the Heart," about heart surgeons, was a semifinalist for a slot at the prestigious National Playwrights Conference, an annual new-play workshop held at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

According to John Stark, her husband of 28 years, one of Bach's proudest moments came last spring when she attended the New York City premiere of "Name Day," the first play in her "Balkan Trilogy" about the impact of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia from World War II until the outbreak of the civil war that broke up the nation in the 1990s.

"She managed to struggle onto the plane, and she was so happy to see that play done," Stark, an actor and director who often served as Bach's producer, told The Times on Friday. "She struggled so hard to write while she was dying, and she was doing small rewrites even as they were staging it."

The off-Broadway production was co-produced by Stark and the New York-based Immigrants' Theatre Project. New York Times reviewer Phoebe Hoban praised "Name Day" -- set in Los Angeles in 1985 among an assimilated immigrant family from the Balkans -- as "an absorbing family drama ... a cogent and moving play."

Hoban wrote that the show benefited from Bach's decision to focus closely on one family's experience of the lasting bitterness and trauma that war can bring: "She keeps her concerns specific and intimate, and it's this immediacy that gives 'Name Day' its particular power."

The play premiered in 1995 as a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times reviewer Philip Brandes wrote then that it rose above "structural limitations" to vividly dramatize "the psychological scars of perpetual war in that historically troubled region" and deliver "a strong warning about the quicksand of brooding."

Bach completed the trilogy with Odyssey guest-stagings of "A Thousand Souls" (1999) -- about a Serbian father and his American-born son traveling in the old country in 1991 on the eve of its disastrous civil war -- and "Marko the Prince" (2001).

She grew up as one of 10 siblings in St. Clair Shores, Mich., outside Detroit. Her brother said the family name was Bachevich until she was 12, when their father, who had left Montenegro in 1916 during the upheaval of World War I, Americanized it. Two years later, they moved to Los Angeles. Bach graduated from UCLA and earned her medical degree there in 1966.

In a 1976 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she spoke of having built, then abandoned, a busy practice as a dermatologist in Tustin so she would have more time to write. Still, she continued to work as a doctor, teaching and doing research and diagnostic work at UCLA. In 1989, she established a practice in Santa Monica, which her husband said continued until she was diagnosed with cancer.

"I see myself a writer first," Bach told The Times in 1995. "Doing plays gives me a whole different energy than I get from my medical work. This is the lifestyle I wanted."

Stark said Bach wrote about 15 plays, as well as unpublished novels. Her dramas sometimes focused on playwrights of the past.

"Mercy Warren's Tea" (1977) is about America's first woman playwright, "O'Neill's Ghosts" (2002) imagined a sequel to "Long Day's Journey into Night," and in "Chekhov and Maria" (1988), she dramatized the great Russian playwright-physician struggling against declining health while trying to finish "The Three Sisters." The latter play also was produced by Stark at a small theater in London in 1993.

Danilo Bach said his sister seemed never to be overwhelmed while balancing her writing, medical career and family obligations. "It was a lot, but she never complained," he said. "She was an extraordinarily compassionate and involved person with a lot of follow-through."

In addition to her plays, Bach wrote two health books: "Eczema and Other Skin Disorders: The Self-Care Guide" and "The Rodale Book of Pregnancy and Birth," which she co-wrote.

Bach kept writing into the final weeks of her life, finishing a children's book called "Paddypus the Flat-Footed Platypus," with illustrations by Lara Starcevich, one of two stepdaughters she raised from childhood after marrying the widowed Stark.

In addition to her husband and stepdaughter, Bach is survived by another stepdaughter, Tanya Starcevich; four grandchildren; and seven siblings.

A viewing will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Joseph's Health and Retirement Center Chapel, 2426 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, followed by a funeral service and Mass at 11 a.m. and a 1 p.m. reception at her husband's home at 515 Vista Hermosa Drive, Ojai.

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