Made-for-TV Mother 

A big screen won’t save what was meant for stage.

If people didn’t catch a first-run film in theaters during the early ’80s, you would often hear them say, “Well, I’ll just wait a couple of years for it to be shown on TV.” That was, of course, before the proliferation of VCRs, cable and satellite TV. Nowadays you don’t have to wait for the networks to show first-run films. They now appear on videocassette or cable in the blink of an eye.

But if you missed the 1997 Salt Lake Acting Company production of The Last Lists of My Mad Mother, you can now see it on KUED. All you needed was two years worth of patience.

In the past, KUED has produced original documentaries and studio productions ranging from modern dance to concerts. But with Last Lists, KUED has delved into the world of on-location TV film. As is the case in many first tries, the end results are mixed.

In adapting playwright Julie Jensen’s semiautobiographical story of a middle-aged daughter and her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother to the small screen, KUED reassembled the Salt Lake cast and filmed on location throughout Utah. KUED also left the original script pretty much untouched for the screenplay.

Whether the decision was an artistic or economic choice, watching the characters interact in Last Lists on TV sometimes seems like a square peg was hammered into a round hole. After all, theater and film are two different mediums. The illusionary dialogue and pauses that work so well on stage, don’t necessarily translate well to film.

Under the direction of John Howe, Last Lists veers from an insightful and personal account of Alzheimer’s to a disease-of-the-week TV movie. In fleshing out what is still essentially dialogue written for the theater, Howe sometimes finds great images to complement the characters’ interactions. But other times they feel tacked-on just to throw in some variety.

Just like in the stage production, Marilyn Holt comes across the best as the elderly Ma whose mind is wasting away. In the transition to film, Holt becomes even more powerful, since every nuance of her character and performance can be seen in tight close-ups of her once-brilliant eyes.

As the dutiful daughter Dot, Carolyn Wood is much more personable here than she was on stage. She also succeeds very well with translating audience-directed theater dialogue to film. Unfortunately, Wood, and Kathryn Atwood as Sis, don’t do so well with their filmed telephone conversations. It’s very clear they were filmed talking on the phone separately, so when they’re edited together the dialogue is stilted and choppy.

With Last Lists KUED has taken a risk, and they have a partial payoff. While the reverence paid to Jensen’s slice-of-life play is honorable, the wish that Jensen had a chance to write a screen adaptation goes unfulfilled.

Last Lists will air on KUED Channel 7 Wednesday, May 12 at 9 p.m.

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Scott C. Morgan

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