Actor hits close to home Profile: Sherry Glaser plays Dad, not to mention Mom and the kids, in 'Family Secrets.' It's healing, she says.

January 24, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

It's no secret that Sherry Glaser is mourning her father, Norm.

He died of liver and stomach cancer at the age of 61, this week, last year.

"I miss him like you can't believe," the 37-year-old actress and writer says. "I'm not depressed. I'm just very sad."

In her one-woman show, "Family Secrets," Glaser plays her father, along with four other members of a dysfunctional Jewish-American family. The show comes to the Gordon Center in Owings Mills for performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

"It's a real tribute to him, marking the anniversary by portraying him," says Glaser, who lives in Mendocino County, Calif.

In a series of five monologues, the Bronx-born Glaser acquaints the audience with each family member. Mort, Bev and Grandma Rose are directly based on Glaser's parents and grandmother. Eldest daughter Fern and teen-age Sandra represent Glaser at different stages.

Reserved accountant Mort shows affection by doing Fern's taxes. Mental-hospital veteran Bev is part Jewish mother royale, part woman-child. Fern, a k a Kahari, is a hippie identity-seeker in the throes of natural childbirth. Bulimic Sandra is a heavy-metal, low-self-esteem case who loses her virginity to an inebriated slimeball. Grandma Rose, optimistic despite her age and the loss of her husband, is a victim of incontinence who fears she has sex too much.

Many families lock their most controversial and dysfunctional mental jewelry in a protective, hush-hush safe. But Glaser's got the combination and reveals the curious contents with honest abandon.

"If everyone did their own families, we'd have an amazing new theater in this country," Glaser says. Other performers, such as John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian and Lily Tomlin, have also explored this form of entertainment. "It's an extraordinary healing tool to stand in the shoes of your family, especially your parents."

At the moment, Glaser is sitting in the former home office of her father in Monterey, Calif. Weary humor filters through every nuance of her speech. The actress has a languorous, nasal voice that often lapses into spurts of Jewish caricature. But real character-immersion requires more than a cleverly timed "oy vay!"

Glaser laid the groundwork for her characters at San Diego State University, where she took a literature course called Drama in 3-D. From there, she got into street theater and improv groups, the most lucrative of which was the Hot Flashes, a feminist

comedy troupe entertaining audiences from San Diego to San Francisco. When Glaser met her husband and collaborator, Greg Howells, she started her solo career. The much-honored "Family Secrets" debuted in San Diego in 1990 and moved to New York in 1993, where it ran for 15 months, becoming off-Broadway's longest-running one-person show.

Keeping "Family Secrets" going for so long is as much a function of Glaser's performance skills as her refusal to repress anything. She learned that putting all your identity cards on the table is better than gambling with fear and sublimation and eventually losing everything.

Real-life breakdown

The real-life counterpart of Bev, Glaser's mother, Shelley, never had the chance to be that open with her own mother, who had a breakdown when Shelley was 4. After that, Shelley never saw her again. In "Family Secrets," Bev's sense of abandonment by her mother and inability to confront the frustration she feels toward her own family lead to her manic depression and breakdown.

Reliving her mother's breakdown through Bev's eyes is one of Glaser's favorite moments.

"I was becoming my mother anyway," says Glaser, who has two daughters of her own. "I might as well make some money."

But instead of making Bev's story into a tragedy, Glaser suffuses her with the aching vulnerability of a mother who is still a child herself. Like every story in the show, this one gracefully teeters between horror and hilarity.

"When my mother's crazy, she thinks she's the Virgin Mary," Glaser says. "I was Jesus' sister -- she didn't get a lot of press."

And although she addresses very personal and painful stages of her mom's past, Shelley isn't offended and constantly calls Glaser with potential new material.

"My mother is a huge fan of herself," Glaser says.

The care and sensitivity Glaser takes with her characters keeps them from veering into "Hava-Nagila"-singing stereotypes.

Glaser can have Grandma Rose sing that Hebrew perennial, along with "Sunrise, Sunset," and make it sweet minus the syrup.

"There's a fine line between stereotype and archetype," Glaser says. Despite the show's decidedly Jewish rhythm and sensibility, its themes and characters are accessible to gentiles and Jews alike.

Glaser gets inside the head of parents dealing with taboo topics. For instance, how does a traditional Jewish father feel when his eldest daughter changes her name from Fern to Kahari and brings home a lesbian lover?

Invisible feelings

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