By Sherry Glasser and Greg Howells
Directed by Greg Howells
At the Spingold Theatre
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA Through March 16th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The program for "Family Secrets" says that it holds the record as "the longest running off Broadway one-person show" and has "won more awards than can here be named". This seems a bit odd. The writing in it is competent rather than brilliant, and the situations and characters overfamiliar. The charm of the show, at least in its present incarnation at Brandeis where actress Donna Blue Lachman plays the five members of the family that author Sherry Glaser played during that record-breaking New York run, lies in the complicity the performer induces in her audience. Lachman here, and presumably Glaser there, both directed by credited co-author Greg Howells, engage the audience as if it were an old family friend. The solo actress transforms herself into five different characters, of varying ages and genders, and each persona shares intimate details of family life in a way that assumes that the hearer will recognize and understand and validate the character's point of view -- see life his or her way.

The virtue of this method of dramatization is that it gives a good actress the opportunity to stretch her range and show off her technique. Lachman creates recognizable types, changing costume, wig and physicalization right before our eyes. She gives us portraits based on observation and mimicry, and then goes the step further by engaging individual members of the audience directly: "Come on. Sing along. Don't you know the words? What's the matter, you aren't Jewish?" Lachman draws us in, projecting the generous warmth of the performer as well as the quirks of the portrayed. I always enjoy watching this, whether it is in the setting of an acting class exercise or integrated into a fully realized work of art like "Fires in the Mirror" or "The Search for Intelligent Life" or "Cloud Nine". After all, these impersonations are a demonstration of the power of mind over matter, and they comfort us, too, with the impression that under the skin we are more alike than different. The audience responded with appreciation, and left the theatre with satisfied smiles and admiring comments on the actress' skill.

The problem with "Family Secrets" is that it encourages the audience to be self-satisfied, to make the leap from recognition of the types to reconciliation with the whole, the tribe or the human race--without doing the hard work of integrating the contradictory points of view and analyzing what amount to damage reports. Everything is papered over with a sentimental "That's family" when what we have actually seen is a terrifying devolution. Whether the youngest daughter Sandra's loathsome personality and hell-bent course of self-destruction is caused by her family, or simply the result of an ancient support system succumbing to the sick society around it isn't worked out. But something is terribly wrong.

All the characters in "Family Secrets" share a sense of humor --if the tendency to turn pain or embarrassment into one-liners is indeed the characters' tendency, and not a scripting device borrowed by authors Glaser and Howells from sitcoms and stand-up comedy. If this is the family coping mechanism, then one would have to conclude that it isn't a good one. Humor is a way of holding two contradictory notions in mind at the same time. Down the generations, these people are trying to live out the stereotype of Jewish family life. The two oldest, grandma Rose and her son Mort, come the closest to finding fulfillment within its limits, but none of them really have a comfortable fit. When Rose in despair puts her head in the oven and turns on the gas, her son Mort's comment makes it a comic turn: "Ma, you live on the 33rd floor. Why didn't you jump out of the window?" Rose's comeback is "It was too cold."

The others' protests against being turned into an ironic aside in somebody else's life narrative can take extreme forms. Mort's wife Bev, whose own mother died when she was a child, went crazy when she couldn't be the perfect mother of perfect children. To her a regime of thorozine and shock treatments was a relief from the pressure of perfection. Her three children rebelled against the same pressure differently The off-stage one, Joe, trod the expected path through a degree in engineering from Columbia, and then veered off to become a shepherd on an Israeli kibbutz. Is this a statement, or is this a statement?

Mort and Bev's oldest daughter is about 25, and has invented a whole New Age identity for herself to challenge her parents' ability to assimilate. Fern has changed her name to Kahari, her religion to witchcraft, and found soul and body mates in a lesbian and a trance channeler named, ominously, Miguel. Most of this monologue is a graphic illustration of Kahari/Fern's midwifed home birth of a daughter. It's funny, and awful, and overflowing with the life force. Maybe there is hope for this one.

The youngest daughter, though, is cause for despair. Sandra is a remarkable creation of Lachman's, physically -- the body and voice and attitude of a sixteen year old -- but Glaser and Howells have written a sixteen year old from Hell. She is all narcissistic rage, focused on family life as the ultimate obstacle to getting what she wants. And what Sandra wants -- judging from the "best night of her life" --- is so repulsive, so destructive of the most basic human values, that one can only hope that she will overdose or die in a car crash before she puts her plans into practice.

If Sandra were the last portrait in "Family Secrets", the audience would leave the theatre shaken. But the authors turned against the piece's otherwise chronological order, and saved the best for last. Grandma Rose is a simple soul. Rose withered when left alone in a empty nest, and Rose blooms once more when she meets a vigorous widower. Her contentment casts a rosy glow over the rest of them, and she as leads the audience in singing "Sunrise, Sunset" she leads us to believe that to everything there is a season, ripeness is all, live and learn ...all the comforting clich├ęs. It works, too. Sentimental tears came rolling down my cheeks.

And then when I got to the parking lot I remembered Rose's granddaughter. Sandra. The family Rose celebrates culminates in Sandra. That goes unmentioned, but it's hardly a secret.