Olivia Johnson was 30,000-plus feet in the air when she first read the script for "Rest."
Tears coursed down her cheeks as she learned about dementia patient Gerald and his wife, Etta, en route to San Francisco for Thanksgiving.
The story hit too close to home for the Tustin Hills resident and South Coast Repertory board member, whose mother was struggling with the same affliction and, like the play's protagonist, lived in a senior center. Alice Gedikian was weeks away from her 100th birthday, and her health was rapidly declining.
"My family's emotions were right on the surface," said Johnson, 67. "I said, 'Oh, really, Martin, does it have to be about that?"
She was referring to Martin Benson, SCR's founding artistic director and the director of "Rest," which will be performed at the Costa Mesa venue until April 27. Commissioned by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, it features a group of people in a retirement home. A 91-year-old resident suffering from severe dementia wanders into a blizzard, creating a crisis for the staff and others who live there.
Toward the end of 2013, Johnson took a long, hard look at her mother and the play and decided to sign on as an honorary producer.
"I said to myself, 'She's doing OK,'" she recalled. "I was planning her birthday. I knew that she was going to continue to slip, and I knew I was taking a chance. But ultimately I decided that I had to have faith. And the more I read, the more I realized this was meant to be."
Hunter, though currently based in New York City, hails from a small town in northern Idaho, where "Rest" takes place. His great-grandmother, Etta Erickson — also the name of a character in the play — lived in a retirement center.
"I only knew her when she was in the late stages of dementia, so I felt like I never got to know the actual woman, as most of her mind had, as a character says in the play, 'receded into the dark,'" he remarked. "So in the play, Etta is the diametric opposite of my grandmother; her mind is still razor-sharp. But her husband, Gerald, has spent the last 12 years slowly sliding into dementia. By the time we meet him, there is barely any of him left.
"The play is, in part, an examination of what it would be like to have the person you love most in the world disintegrate in front of your eyes."
'A huge, dark question'
While "Rest" deals with issues like aging, it is first and foremost a character piece that the writer hopes will "resonate with the audience's own experiences and, hopefully, allow them to look at their own experiences with death and aging in new ways."
According to Hunter, the central plot is oriented around Gerald going missing, but the play is about the entire ensemble and each one's journey, highlighted in the face of his disappearance and the snowstorm.
"'Rest' is about connecting across generations," said dramaturg John Baker. "I think that the play threads two different generations together on stage, and what we see are younger people connecting to older people and vice versa. That's what the big picture is."
Baker met Hunter when the two attended graduate school at the University of Iowa in 2005. Since then, they've teamed up on several projects. Not only did Baker serve as a sounding board and offer feedback to Hunter and Benson, but he also conducted research on dementia and memory loss, encouraging the cast to watch episodes of "Frontline," a PBS documentary series, when it focused on similar topics.
Describing "Rest" as "honest and heartbreaking," Baker believes that viewers will feel the need to reflect on their own lives and that of their families and even perhaps mull over personal views on death.
"That sounds like a huge, dark question, but the play finds simultaneously funny and meaningful ways of answering it," he added.
Last season, SCR produced another Hunter play, "The Whale," also directed by Benson. That partnership led to the 32-year-old playwright being tapped to create new work for the theater's 50th anniversary this year.
Johnson, who is no stranger to Hunter's portfolio, was struck by the way her mother — who died Jan. 4, two days after she turned 100 — and Gerald were both soothed by music.
"She knew she loved me," she said. "I'd walk in and she'd light up and say, 'Ah, I love you' and I'd say, 'I know, and I love you.' A little bit later, we'd be having a nice conversation, but it would be just like one she'd have with one of the caregivers who'd come in and sit with her. All of a sudden she'd say, 'Olivia?' And I said, 'That's me — I'm Olivia, I came to see you.' She'd be so happy, but two minutes later, it was gone."
It was excruciating, Johnson said, to watch a woman she'd always considered beautiful and powerful pull further away from her loved ones, as is the case with Gerald. She quipped that the audience's biggest takeaway from "Rest" would be "tissues."
Johnson, thinking back to the day when her mother approached her seeking a community, offered a piece of advice.
"When you want to put someone into a seniors' facility — if it's one that has life and energetic activities — get them in there early, because then people get to know the person while they're still vibrant and fun, and then they make friends," she said.
"Those friends are the ones that are going to support them later as they begin to diminish."
If You Go
Where: Segerstrom Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through April 27. There will only be a matinee performance on April 27.
Cost: $22 to $72
Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org