Written and performed by Sherry Glaser
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Sherry Glaser as Mort
Family Secrets at Theater J introduces us to the kooky Fisher family sharing poignant moments in their lives. In this one woman tour-de-force, Sherry Glaser takes on the walk, talk, accoutrement and mannerisms of the proverbial father Mort, clinically depressed mother Bev, hippie daughter Fern renamed Kahari, teenager from hell Sandra, and a liberated Grandma Rose. Glaser’s portrayals seem effortless as she embodies and inhabits the various characters with realism and love. Each has his/her own sense of presence and movement, and Glaser has them all down pat, as evidenced by their various approaches to sitting in the big salmon colored overstuffed armchair centerstage (set adapted for Theater J by Thomas Howley.) At rise, the father sits dressed in a three-piece pin-striped suit, including an old fashioned link chained pocket watch (vintage 1980’s), talking, actually, doing more listening on the telephone. From the character’s first moments, with his repeated monosyllabic responses, "Uh huh…uh huh" maybe eight times, in a style used throughout the entire montage, Glaser relays a sense of functioning in real time– no editing, no condensing to make anything more convenient, palatable, nothing is scrubbed. If Papa needs to pick something out of his nose, so be it. There’s nothing pretentious about any of the characters, and while that might make them exasperating, it also adds an endearing, real world quality to them. That’s probably what contributed to the play’s success as the longest running one-woman off-Broadway performance—the "that’s my neighbor or family member" instant recognition, or maybe even, "hey, that’s me." She’s that honest.
The scenes depicting each character are all standalone and don’t depend much on each other to establish any anchoring through lines, just a passing or general reference every now and then. Probably most striking in terms of relationships is the Father/ daughter conflict between Papa Mort and the renamed Kahari. Mort is bewildered when his daughter describes her latest love interest, another woman, and their plans to become pregnant. "How is that even physically possible?" he wonders aloud, so puzzled about the anatomical challenges that he almost forgets to be upset about the premise. Glaser whips out some fabulous zingers during this "Happy" segment which, to me, is the strongest in the bunch, with its penetrating questions about the unending quest for happiness. Besides, who can’t relate to the all suffering Dad, shouldering the family with Sisyphus like tenacity, slipping into those comfy after-work slippers, listening patiently to the cacophony of voices clamoring for his attention (mainly financial support), when all he wants in life is to able to settle in the old easy chair in peace. That’s certainly my Dad.
Glaser’s transition at the dressing table from Mort to Bev for "The Perfect Mother" is masterful. Again, she takes all the time she needs– there’s nothing rushed as she handles the make-up, clothes and dons the big blond wig with panache. Most striking is the chortling laugh that persists whether she’s telling a joke or describing her nervous breakdown and harrowing effects of shock treatment at the asylum. "They taught us how to play bridge on Monday, Tuesday was shock treatment, so by Wednesday nobody remembered how to play," ending with her characteristic chuckle.
Kahari’s experience giving birth in "The "Home Birth" takes place with such realism that it’s either exhilarating, exhausting or unnerving to watch. Glaser holds on to the armrests like she’s sitting on a birthing stool pushing and squeezing to within an inch of her life. Moments earlier, she demonstrated with her fingers spread the different sizes of cervical dilation for the head to start crowning, reaching down and touching it with her fingers. Yes, we get the whole birth experience down to almost hearing the splash of her "water breaking." Having performed the piece countless times over the years, Glaser has gotten used to the T.M. I. reactions (too much information) to this touchstone piece and doesn’t seem to mind one bit – it’s birth, it’s life, get over it.
The sixteen year old Goth wanna-be Sandra shouts enraged at her mother about being grounded in "House Arrest." She displays characteristic teenage angst about all the chores she’s required to do, i.e. load the dishwasher, puffing sullenly and loudly like a caged animal in full mistreatment mode, collapsing on the bed where she describes her sexual exploits. The girl definitely has issues, and being grounded sounds like the least of her potential concerns. From the youngest to the eldest, Glaser zooms to Grandma Rose in "True Love," transitioning at the dressing table, collapsing her spine and jutting out her features until she’s almost unrecognizable. Again, the armchair becomes a supporting character, this time literally, as Rose huffs and puffs to sit down into it and get back up. Her zest for life, and her accounts of finding love in Milton, a fellow octogenarian who appreciates her, weaknesses and all, are quite touching.
Glaser has clearly based the characters on her own family members, including herself, as described in her autobiography: Family Secrets: One Woman’s Look at a Relatively Painful Subject. In an interview, she explains, "The problem with people isn’t knowing, it’s telling. It’s that we don’t know how to tell each other who we are." Glaser’s clarity and honest portrayals shed light and hope for the rest of us. Hearing their individual stories in this funny yet melancholy production, seeing their survival despite eruptions, meltdowns, disappointments, pain and tears, elicit hope of survival for all.
Click here to hear DCTR’s interview with Sherry Glaser
Family Secrets is playing at DCJCC, 1529 16th Street (at Q), through April 15th, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3 and 7:30 pm. For ticket information, call (800) 494-TIXS or Flex Tix: (202) 777-3210. Website:.