THE LEGEND in playwright Jennifer Maisel's family is that every year during the Passover Seder, her grandfather used to grab the traditional horseradish root off the table and take a bite. For the weak of tongue, that's not a pleasant experience.
"It's my favorite holiday of all the Jewish holidays in that it's the one that involves your home and your family and isn't about going somewhere else," says Maisel. "It becomes so personal to every family."
The holiday's quirks and intimacy spurred Maisel to write "The Last Seder," a play about four grown daughters who come home for the last Passover in their childhood house before their Alzheimer's-stricken father moves into a nursing home.
The daughters are coping with their father's disease while handling their own issues: one's an aimless wanderer, one's a pregnant lesbian, one's wondering when her fiance will marry her already, and one has no date so she invites someone she met at Penn Station.
"A lot of it has to do with the daughters' inability to talk about losing their father, and the hurt that that creates in their lives," says director Joseph Megel, whose grandmother had dementia. "It's a very hard thing for someone to not recognize you."
Then there's the mom, played by Jenny O'Hara ("Mystic River"), who is, of course, a wreck -- and she has to cook everything. "She's in that really stuck place where you're filled with grief, and you're really angry and you're really defiant and you're funny and generous and loving at the same time -- it's a real mishmash," says O'Hara, who, with husband Nick Ullett -- also in the play as the next door neighbor -- dealt with Ullett's father's Alzheimer's.
Megel says that despite the play's grim subject matter, it does have humor, and eventually provides a catharsis, especially to audience members who have dealt with a relative who has Alzheimer's or the death of a parent. "The emotional release it gives people has been pretty extraordinary," he says, judging from past productions in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Maisel -- who has written several other plays in addition to scripts for Lifetime, Disney and other outlets -- gave the house in "The Last Seder" the same address as her childhood home: 192 Waverly Ave. in the Long Island town of East Rockaway. But the play isn't autobiographical. "People are always asking if this is my family, and often my dad's standing right here," she says. "He's fine! He's right there!"
Maisel notes that audience members don't need to be Jewish to understand the play. "We've had audiences where people say to me, 'That's exactly like Easter or like my Thanksgiving,' " she says.
Seder is like mass, she adds, in that it "has a dramatic structure to it -- rise and climax and denouement." So when is the climax of the Seders she's attended? "Probably when we eat," she says.
'THE LAST SEDER'
WHERE: Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave.
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Fri.; runs 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun.; ends July 27.
INFO: (323) 655-7679, Ext. 100; www.greenway arts.org