A mother’s love, her family’s struggle and regret for lost opportunity offer the basis for an original musical drama that premieres tonight at the Nash Arts Center.
“Keeping Score” by local playwright-composer Jim Lee runs through Sunday at the Nashville venue. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
The musical tells the story of four generations of small-town N.C. women on Thanksgiving mornings in 1957, 1977 and 1997. As the play opens, Brenda has come home from a whirlwind Hollywood romance that has left her living with her mother, Gladys, and infant daughter, Lucy. As 40 years unfold, Brenda comes to grips with the betrayal that caused her stuntman husband to return to California, leaving her to raise her bitter daughter and, later, her defiant granddaughter, Carole, while she must forgo her dreams of love and stardom.
“The original premise of the show is based on the relationship between my mother and grandmother,” Lee said. “There was always a resentment between them that no one in our family was ever able to resolve. Writing this play was my attempt to find some personal understanding of what occurred between them.”
Adding to the play’s challenge is that each of the four actresses enters the action at about her current age, but then she has to age 20 years in each succeeding act. For example, Gladys (played by Tammy Benfield) is in her 40s in Act I, but must be in her 60s and then 80s as the play progresses.
“Tammy ... has helped me see that Gladys, while misguided in many ways, loves her daughter and wants the best for her,” Lee said. “She has found a more sympathetic side to Gladys that I did not realize I put in the character.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge belongs to Gladys’ daughter, Brenda (Maitland Johnson). The character is presented at 21, 41 and 61 years old, although Johnson only is 17.
“I knew Maitland has a maturity beyond her years from working with her last year in ‘Letters from Laura,’” Lee said. “It is emotionally exhausting to take on the life experience of 40 years in the span of two hours, but Maitland has embraced that challenge.”
The hardest role to cast was that of Lucy.
“I have seen Jessica Rogers grow up on stage in the last three years, and I knew she had the courage to take on this role,” Lee said. “Lucy deals with Brenda’s rejection by becoming a wild child, and Gladys tries to make it up to Lucy by enabling her to feed her demons. I knew Jessica was up for this task.”
Said Rogers: “We have to make sure that everything we do with these characters is not only realistic, but also done in a way that the audience can relate to, understand, and sympathize with each character.”
Rounding out the cast is Anna Bindrim as Carole, Lucy’s daughter.
“Carole rejects everything she has learned from the other three,” Lee said.
Bindrim agreed on the effect that family relationships had on her character.
“She is truly a modern woman, but, ironically, she owes much of her strength to her experience in dealing with the other women in her family,” the actress said. “I think this is a well-written play that captures the essence of many modern single-parenting families. The characters are true to life.”
The musical’s title also has multiple meanings.
“My grandmother and mother always kept score with each other as a way of tracking obligations,” Lee said. “Each hated having to owe the other anything.”
“Keeping Score” includes 14 original songs and is Lee’s second original musical drama for Nash Arts, following last summer’s “Letters from Laura.” He also composed the scores for the center’s 2010 and 2011 adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.”
Lee’s new work features a modern Broadway-style score that reflects its composer’s ear.
“In writing for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Letters from Laura,’ I was tied to the themes I started with: Christmas songs and old-time music. ‘Keeping Score’ is the first time I have allowed myself to start developing a musical style of my own.”
Tickets are $10. Parental guidance is suggested due to mature subject matter.
For additional information or to reserve tickets, call the center at 459-4734, or go to nasharts.org.