From left, Melissa Ortiz, Lorri Holt, Dan Hiatt and Blythe de Oliveira Foster appear in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Ruben Grijalva’s “Shoot Me When… .” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse)

From left, Melissa Ortiz, Lorri Holt, Dan Hiatt and Blythe de Oliveira Foster appear in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Ruben Grijalva’s “Shoot Me When… .” (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse)

‘Shoot Me When…’ a heartfelt look at dementia

SF Playhouse stages entertaining family dramedy by Ruben Grijalva

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Local playwright Ruben Grijalva’s new play, “Shoot Me When…” a San Francisco Playhouse commission, appears at first to be a light romantic comedy.

It begins with Jackie (inimitable longtime Bay Area actor Lorri Holt) and Len (equally esteemed local actor Dan Hiatt) drinking and flirting in a bar, having just met. When Jackie’s two anxious daughters, Ariel (Melissa Ortiz) and Gabby (Blythe de Oliveira Foster) appear, it seems that Mom’s drunken, giggly behavior is a huge embarrassment to them.

And when Jackie introduces them and tells Len that Ariel has three kids, and Ariel corrects her — “No, two” — and Mom wonders idly what happened to the third, you’re likely to think she’s an awful person, not just a drunken slut but a negligent, uncaring parent.

But Grijalva’s aims are much deeper.

Jackie, it turns out, is in what appears to be an early middle stage of dementia, the stage where strangers can’t tell there’s anything wrong, the stage where she still remembers most but not all things and can fly off the handle unexpectedly. The stage where, to her children, she often seems like her old self, craving ice cream and Manhattans, laughing over a family joke about “cauliflower pie,” using the same old familiar expressions, her favorite being a wry “Just shoot me when…”

Witty, ahead of her time (as her daughters agree), oft-married, in love with life and a wise and caring mother, Jackie is a force to be reckoned with, a wonderful theatrical creation.

Bitter, practical-minded Ariel, who’s been Jackie’s fulltime caregiver for the past three years, and whose own marriage is crumbling, and the younger, feckless and carefree Gabby, agree — although not entirely — on how to deal with the problem of Mom.

But Len, an amiable widower and retired cop, is in the way.

The three who orbit around Jackie, and that includes the stalwart Len, are carefully constructed characters in their own right, beautifully portrayed by the cast and sensitively directed by Susi Damilano. As seen on video, the two acts play out smoothly on SF Playhouse’s stage, on a set designed by artistic director Bill English.

Part dark comedy, part serious family drama, Grijalva’s carefully wrought script — its thorny ethical concerns and the nuances of its female family relationships — is both deeply involving and, for two hours (although it could use some trimming), thoroughly entertaining.

We’re in a period when more and more playwrights are writing about Alzheimer’s (as in, most recently, the brilliant film version of Florian Zeller’s play “The Father”), and Grijalva, who clearly knows whereof he writes, has added to that canon with this funny, heartbreaking play.

“Shoot Me When… ” streams through May 22. Tickets are $15-$100. Visit sfplayhouse.org.

Theater

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