When Sally Wingert asked the audience to sing along last Saturday night with her a cappella chorus of "Sunrise, Sunset," the crowd complied with a spontaneously heartfelt group-sing on this generation-specific nugget of Jewish soul music. When it was over, she smiled into the lights and said, "You're all Jewish!"
Well, not everyone. This writer was brought back to the Dickensian main hall of his elementary school on the last day before winter vacation. The teachers gathered every student in the school to sing Christmas carols and, on that winter morning in 1973, one boy realized he was the only one in the place who didn't know the words.
The point is not to dwell on these instances of belonging to neither tradition, but to suggest that the expression of cultural particulars can have the effect of demonstrating our similarities rather than our differences. Family Secrets mines the past of a particular Jewish family, with all the attendant kvetching and meshugass, and it does so in a way that evokes the craziness and peculiarity of every family. It's a deceptively light work that skips over the surface of events like a stone thrown over a lake, its depths only hinted at.
Wingert appears alone throughout the show, and tackles five characters in little more than an hour. Sherry Glaser's script gives us Mort and Bev, a long-suffering father and giddy mother with a history of depression, Virgin Mary visions, and electroshock treatment. Wingert's first impulse all night is to go for laughs first, and the script affords her a lot of good material. Bev is brittle and maniacal, while Mort is the kind of dad who, when he recounts his daughter telling him "the universe" would provide for her, whips out his wallet and says, "Here's the universe."
The set consists of a few pieces of homey furniture, along with brown vertical posts draped with outfits suggestive of various absent family members. It's a neat device that evokes the reality that family members are always with us, in thought, memory, and spirit, whether we want them to be or not. It's also a handy way to spread out Wingert's five costumes--the production forces her to be a quick-change artist, and at one point she looks over her shoulder and says, with cornball coquettishness, No peeking!
It's that kind of night: loose, intimate, personal. The show's deficiencies in dramatic arc (there is none) and excitement are compensated for by Wingert's charm and skill at navigating the characters. In a memorable moment as Bev, she recounts her lifesaving therapist, who encouraged her to admit that part of her hates her family. Bev is instructed to smash dinnerware to vent her anger, and Wingert plays both sides of the conversation by going back and forth between cool control and frightened panic--all the while dragging into the light of day the resentment and confinement beneath the surface of family life.
In the program notes, Glaser writes that creating Family Secrets was part of her attempt to save herself from the mental illness that had overcome both her mother and grandmother. The teenager Sandra is a funny screamer in Wingert's hands, until she unveils the same chilling laugh as her mother and makes casual reference to her bulimia and letting herself be essentially raped by the popular boy at school. Wingert and director Peter Rothstein have decided to play these moments for what they are, making the best of the material without stretching for depths and heights that wouldn't fit the script.
Family Secrets enjoyed the longest off-Broadway one-woman-show run in history, and it's easy to see why. It's entertaining and relatively undemanding. By the time Wingert's old lady Rose shares with us a story of golden-years sweetness, she leaves us with a simple truth: We'll always be our parents' child. And for all the pain and nuttiness, it's frequently best to drop the hand that keeps the past at arm's length. It seems our histories only have the power to bite with the fangs we endow to them.