DELIA EPHRON ON LIFE, CLOTHES, AND “LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE”
Okay, try this experiment (it may not work as effectively if you’re of the male persuasion). Go to your closet. Pick out a favorite item of clothing.
Can you remember where and when you first wore it? Does it call up any memories of what you were up to in your life and how you felt at that time?
If so, maybe you’re among the thousands – worldwide – who’ve read the book, “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” by Ilene Beckerman, or have seen the play of the same name based on the little book. If you haven’t seen the show, now’s your chance (through March 22, at the Lyceum Theatre).
The play was the final collaboration of the sisterly writing team of Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron (Nora passed away in 2012, after a six-year struggle with leukemia; she was 71). I spoke to Delia Ephron, from her home in New York, and supplemented our delightful conversation with quotes from her recent (2013), funny/poignant book, “Sister Mother Husband Dog.”
“Nora found [Beckerman’s 1995] book and fell in love with it,” Delia said. “It’s a small, powerful, illustrated memoir, the story of her life told through the clothes she wore. Even though it was completely specific — about her life and clothes — reading it opened a floodgate of memories about what-you-wore-when.
“[Nora] knew it was a play, a ‘Vagina Monologues’ sort of thing. We always called it ‘The Vagina Monologues without the vaginas,’ though the ‘Vagina Monologues’ people weren’t very happy about that.”
The Ephron sisters, who had collaborated on the films “You’ve Got Mail,” “Hanging Up,” “Mixed Nuts” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” optioned the book in 1996, and the play opened Off Broadway in 2009.
“The world’s longest birth,” Delia says of the 14-year gestation process from concept to reality.
Soliciting Women’s Stories – and a San Diego Connection
“The play is based on this simple idea: if you ask women about their clothes, they tell you about their lives. We sent out emails to all our girlfriends, saying ‘Tell us about your clothes.’ And they did.”
The Ephrons sent out 100 emails. Rosie O’Donnell responded; Nora and Delia’s stories are in there, too. And they dispatched their niece to interview young women about their ‘first bra’ experiences.
They used stories from a gang member from Chicago, a brave and defiant breast cancer patient, a vixen of sorts. There are funny stories about weight, dressing room anxiety (“Is this mirror, like, distorted?”), nutty things your mother told you (“Nice Jewish Girls do not get their ears pierced.” “Never wear velvet before Rosh Hashanah”), and comical discourses on impossibly high heels, overstuffed purses (a piece borrowed from Nora’s book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck”), wardrobe malfunctions, the tyranny of the closet (“I have nothing to wear!”) and the importance of the color black (“Sometimes I buy something that isn’t black and I put it on and I am so sorry”). There are poignant monologues about mother/daughter relationships, sisterhood and friendship, and men who come and go in women’s lives.
But the Ephrons were hamstrung; they could not capture Gingy (Beckerman’s nickname, due to her ginger-colored hair). Many of Gingy’s stories, taken directly from the book, made their way into the play script. But after several workshops and readings, the play still wasn’t working; they gave up and let the option lapse.
Now, here’s where the San Diego connection comes in. Director Karen Carpenter, who had been the associate artistic director at The Old Globe, had read the play and held onto it for years. She contacted the Ephrons , and set up a workshop and public performance/reading in East Hampton, Long Island. They snagged Tony Award-winning actor Linda Lavin to play Gingy . And suddenly, everything clicked.
One of the lessons of this experience, according to Delia: “Sometimes, the right actor makes all the difference. Suddenly, we knew who Gingy was. She’s so important to the piece; she’s the mistress of ceremonies, and Linda made her come alive.”
When the show opened Off Broadway (with Rosie O’Donnell, Tyne Daly and Samantha Bee, not Linda Lavin), it became wildly popular, and ran for more than two years, winning the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience and the Broadway.com Audience Award for favorite New Off-Broadway play. The show has been produced on six continents and diverse countries, including France, Australia, Mexico, Germany, the Philippines, South Africa and Israel.
The five women who make up the cast (typically a decade apart in age), changed every month in the New York production. All told, 150 women participated during the course of the run.
“It was the most fun I ever had,” says Delia. “It was always a sisterhood; the bond between the women onstage and in the audience was palpable. Personal.”
In terms of sisterhood, it doesn’t get closer than Nora and Delia Ephron.
The Cult of Ephron
“From early childhood, we were always super-bonded,” Delia recalls. “She always said we shared a brain. She was often mistaken for my twin.”
Nora was three years older, then came Delia, then Hallie, then Amy. All were writers. Their parents were writers, too (Phoebe and Henry Ephron, who jointly penned classic films such as “Daddy Longlegs” and “Take Her, She’s Mine”). In the family lore, Nora was ‘the smart one’ and Delia was ‘the funny one.’
“We had an extremely dynamic mother,” says Delia, “who believed all her daughters would have careers. The subtext of everything was ‘You’ll be a writer.’ She had this idea of us, The Ephron Girls.”
Their mother started out poor, a Bronx girl from Russian immigrants. As soon as she could, she moved her family from New York to Beverly Hills, “where we went to assimilate. That move had a huge impact on all of us.”
They didn’t have a very religious upbringing (“until 8th grade, when boys had their Bar Mitzvahs, I’d never entered a Temple… While we ate nova and bagels every Sunday, I didn’t taste a matzo ball until I was 40”). But the family was very strongly culturally Jewish.
“My mother was violently opposed to organized religion,” Delia reports. “She left the Bronx Jewish ghetto behind and established her own religion: Ephron. A sect of writers. Services were held nightly at the dinner table. Laughter was the point, not prayer, and the blessing was ‘That’s a great line; write it down.’
“My mother believed in nonconformity, and we, her four driven daughters, were expected to be nonconformists, too, which essentially meant we had to conform to everything she said. Still, it was fantastic, because her rules called into question everything that was common wisdom at the time. My mother’s rules were our commandments. She was Moses, and we were her followers.”
Although her mother’s pronouncements didn’t make it into the play, some of them were doozies.
“Just because you’re related to someone is no reason to like them.”
“Never learn to do housework, or someone may ask you to.”
“Never eat leftovers”
“Pick one hairdo and stick with it.”
“No censorship.” Which somehow seems to conflict with, “You can read anything except the comics. ”
“She never said, she proclaimed,” recalls Delia.
All this was fine for a number of years. It laid the groundwork of their lives. And then, when Delia was 11, she says, “my mother went to pieces. She became an alcoholic, and she died at 58 of cirrhosis (in 1971). I had a very very sunny childhood, and then it turned very dark. But the imprinting was incredible up to that time. What she did give me was such a powerful sense of identity.
“Writing has been a blessing in my life. It’s how I make sense of my family. When we were younger, we brought all our stories to the dinner table. Storytelling was so valued. I got attention by being funny and clever.”
Delia started out as a journalist. Over time, she has written for Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, O the Oprah Magazine and many others. Her 500-word piece for the New York Times Magazine section, “How to Eat Like a Child,” about children and food, turned into an Emmy Award-winning TV special and then a musical revue for children. It was her “first big success,” and it came at age 32.
“It was the first time I understood my own voice, truly heard it. Your writing is your fingerprint.”
She went on to be a contributing editor at New York magazine, and then, to write nine screenplays (including “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), novels for adults, and for teens, books of humor and essays. Her most recent creation, the well-received memoir, “Sister Mother Husband Dog,” was “precipitated by Nora’s death.” The first chapter is titled, “Losing Nora.” Delia still finds it so difficult to talk about the loss that she referred me to her book instead.
“Losing her is like losing an arm,” she writes. “It’s that deranging. She was/is a national treasure.”
[I was lucky to meet Nora, interview her, even have dinner with her, when she was at the Old Globe in 2002, for her first play-with-music, “Imaginary Friends”].
“So many women have come up to me,” Delia says, “telling me she was their role model. And she was mine, too. Writing is the only way I know to move on. Also, it’s comforting… it’s a way to be together… The knowledge of how similar we were, how much we appreciated each other depended on each other, made each other laugh, could live without many other people but not without each other, was a solace and joy for both of us… She’s still part of my consciousness.”
From Page to Stage… to San Diego
“One of the great things about plays,” Delia asserts, “ they’re always being re-interpreted.”
And so it is with the San Diego production Of “Love Loss.”
Director John Anderson, production manager at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, has a few different ideas for the show, though the basic structure (five women sharing monologues) remains.
After Anderson’s successful direction of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” for Playhouse Productions, the producers asked him to helm a show of his choosing. He opted for “Love Loss,” because “I thought it was right up the alley of their audience.
“These stories touched me,” Anderson says. “I’m not testosterone-poisoned. I have a mother, grandmothers, two sisters and a wife. I can certainly enjoy this play.”
He had Melinda Gilb, a multi-talented San Diego favorite, in mind for Gingy from the start. He cast not only multiple voices and ages, but also a racial diversity. One actor ( Jacole Kitchen) is African American; Elsa Martinez is Latina. Local favorites Deanna Driscoll and Rachael VanWormer round out the cast.
“This will not just be people sitting and reading,” Anderson promises. “But there will be no props. I want them to create the audience’s idea of that favorite sweater. We don’t need to show it.
“It’s not just a Girls Night Out,” he reiterates “I invite any enlightened San Diegan to come. These stories are funny and charming for everyone.”
Anderson explains “a direct address play,” which requires very particular skills of the performers.
“The actors are not pretending to talk to somebody else. There’s no setting, no narrative line. Each story begins fresh. And each time, the actor is talking to you. They’re not necessarily the hero of their stories. Most of the stories are about less than triumphant experiences in their lives. They’re doing what you do with friends and confidantes, but to a big roomful of people. It’s all about storytelling.”
Which brings us back to Delia Ephron, that successful product of a storytelling family.
“I love the play,” she confesses. “It’s associated with so many wonderful feelings for me: my clothes, my girlfriends. And Nora, of course. It was just a joy to work on. It was truly about sisterhood: our own, and the shared experiences of women.
“It’s perfect that it’s in San Diego now,” says Delia. “That takes it full circle, back to the very beginning.”
“Love, Loss and What I Wore” runs February 25-March 22, in the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza
Tickets ($45-$65) are available at 619-554-1000; www.playhouseinfo.com
©2015 PAT LAUNER