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Family plot; Ross' deft mystery grew from crisis of dad's Alzheimer's

I love a mystery. And, probably more than anyone, so does Gary Earl Ross.

Ross is a local university professor, a commentator for public radio, an essayist, actor, a pop-culture guru, a poet and a playwright. He's also a card-carrying member of the Mystery Writers of America. I don't know what he does in his spare time.

Two of his recent plays, "Matter of Intent" and "Murder Squared," have garnered national acclaim. His latest, "The Scavenger's Daughter," returns tonight at Ujima Company after staged readings elsewhere and some rewrite at home. Ross is directing a cast that includes Shanntina Moore, the formidable Willie Judson, Cindy Miller, Hugh Davis, Brandon Williamson and Saron Ephraim.

"Scavenger's Daughter" grew out of an unlikely, family-wrenching experience. Ross' father died after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease. The many hours spent discussing dementia, nursing homes and health care, and the conversations with and observations of caregivers, professionals and family members of other patients, gave rise to an idea for a story. What developed was not about the family of Gary Earl Ross, but rather a play about "the fault lines of anyone's family, their histories and hopes, personalities, successes and disappointments." His dad's struggle with "the long goodbye" proved to Ross that Alzheimer's is not a "communicable disease but a community disease."

And so the plot of this new play follows the Pickett family through days of crisis, a time when big decisions have to be made about their dad's future -- patriarch John Pickett's Alzheimer's is peaking and home care is looking impossible. There are complications beyond this: stepmother Ruthie, a loose cannon, accuses the adult Pickett children -- teacher Alan, streetwise and shadowy Brian, sweet Connie -- of plotting to sell the house out from under her and take the money and some of John's meager savings to pay for his care. Ruthie -- a shrew, volatile and unpredictable -- is right, but the kids' intentions are noble. A showdown looms.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks -- we know early on that something very bad happened at the Pickett home, unspeakable tragedy. The police, notably investigator Maxine -- "call me Max" -- Travis, interviews the siblings and this is where Ross, the mystery writer, shines: each recollection deftly discloses clues and tidbits about who said and did what and when. "Scavenger" writing is skilled here. Listen carefully.

No need for a spoiler alert. Tension builds, more pieces of the puzzle surface. There's no happy-ever-after resolve, but what happens is plausible and possible. It could happen.

The cast is splendid. Intensity reigns, epitomized by Hugh Davis as Alan. The ensemble is generally soft-spoken and some dialogue is lost. Not a good thing when roles are strongly written like these. Actresses Moore, Ephraim and Miller, as Ruthie, give convincing portrayals.

Brandon Williamson is a pleasant surprise as Brian, full of easygoing menace and confident cool. The towering Judson is memorable as John, giving us glimpses of the man past -- steel-willed, demanding but fair, lover of family, critical but supporting at once -- and then a segue to the crushing shell of now. A grand, sad and moving performance.

"The Scavenger's Daughter" is a complex tale of our time. Ross tells it well.


"The Scavenger's Daughter"    

3 stars (out of 4)

WHEN: Through May 27    

WHERE: Ujima Company at TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.    

TICKETS: $15-$25    

INFO: or 883-0380