In the one-woman show "Family Secrets," currently on stage at the Downstairs Cabaret at Winton Place, actress Carolyn Michel portrays five different members of one conventionally unconventional family as they struggle to relate to one another and find happiness within their own lives. Originally performed by actress Sherry Glaser and co-written by Glaser with her then husband, Gregory Howells, the play opened in 1993 and had a long, award-winning run Off Broadway (according to Glaser's website, it holds the distinction for being the longest-running one-woman show in Off Broadway history). Evidently the intervening years have not been kind to the material, and any edge the subject matter may have once had has been dulled over time.
The story is based loosely on Glaser's own family. Their fictionalized counterparts are the Fishers, a Jewish family originally from Brooklyn, but now residing in Southern California. We're introduced to the family members one by one as they each deliver a monologue laying out their life's struggles. There's Mort, the patriarch of the family; a no-nonsense accountant struggling to accept his eldest daughter's bisexuality and unorthodox lifestyle. His deceptively cheery wife, Bev, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after suffering a nervous breakdown as a result of the pent-up anger she felt toward her own (now deceased) mother. Their oldest daughter, Fern, or Kahari as she now prefers to be known, is a new-age spiritualist suffering through the consequences of her decision to have a natural childbirth. Mort and Bev's youngest daughter, Sandra, is a petulant teenager (and burgeoning bulimic) experimenting for the first time with sex and drugs (this is a comedy, I swear). Finally, there's Mort's mother, Rose, who has found a new love late in life with a man named Milton.
In an interesting bit of staging carried over from the original production, Michel performs her costume and makeup transformations in front of the audience, making it easy to see the alterations she makes in her performance to inhabit each individual family member. Sometimes this works to her benefit, and other times significantly less so. Michel is clearly a capable performer, and she acquits herself well with the older characters. But frankly, she doesn't make an entirely convincing 16-year-old.
Too often, the Fishers feel like costumes; identities to try on, but not three-dimensional enough to avoid coming across as caricatures. It doesn't help that the writing lays on the Jewish schtick rather heavily. The program includes a glossary of helpful Yiddish phrases, and at one point Rose even leads the audience in a sing-a-long of "Hava Nagila."
The script touches on difficult topics — mental illness, depression, drug abuse, and rape — but doesn't delve deeply enough for them to have much impact. For a show called "Family Secrets," these characters sure are eager to talk, but there's never a sense that they're unburdening themselves of any particularly painful or shocking truths. Perhaps part of the problem is that in the 20 years that have passed since the play was written, playwrights have gotten bolder and more daring with the subject matter they choose to tackle in mainstream entertainment. While Bev emerges as the most fully realized character, now we have shows like the musical "Next To Normal," which covers much of the same terrain as Bev's monologue, including shock therapy and medication side effects, but with significantly more depth, nuance, and insight.
Director Howard Millman (the former artistic director of Geva Theater, and also Michel's husband) stages the monologues effectively, but aside from Michel occasionally addressing a line off stage, they each feel isolated from one another. Maybe that's intentional thematically, and obviously, more than one character can't be on stage at the same time. But the result is that the speeches don't feel tied together in any way. Millman also makes the slightly odd decision to allow "Family Secrets" to remain a period piece. There's no specific reference to a time period within the text, so it's not really noticeable until Sandra's section, when she's introduced dancing around her bedroom lip syncing to Journey's "Separate Ways" and dressed like she's just escaped from a rerun of "Kids Incorporated." It makes for a somewhat jarring transition, to say the least.
It's details like these at keep the Fishers from feeling developed as realistic people; like they could be your neighbors or even your own family. The play ends with Rose addressing the audience, explaining that when we entered the theater we were strangers, but in her mind we had practically become family. Unfortunately, I never felt any more connected to her than I did when her entire identity was still hanging on a clothes rack.