You were expecting maybe Lily Tomlin? Glaser wigs out on her family.
You were expecting maybe Lily Tomlin? Glaser wigs out on her family.

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Sherry Glaser’s working, too—less showily but no less precisely, in her quietly superb one-woman show Family Secrets. A long-running off-Broadway hit in the ’90s, revived last year and now visiting Theater J, it’s a warm, funny series of visits with the folks—and the folks, as with so many of us, she clearly has mixed feelings about.

There’s Mort, the taciturn accountant, exasperated by pretty much everything, especially his daughter the “om”-chanting lesbian; there’s Bev, the wife with that singular whinny of a laugh, all too happy to sit us down and chronicle her nervous breakdown. There’s Fern (a character reportedly based on Glaser herself) delivering a child at home, sans anesthetic, with the child’s spirit-medium father on one arm and her own female lover on the other, and Fern’s younger sister Sandra, pouting her way through a disciplinary grounding and letting us in on the story of why it’s been imposed. And then, finally, there’s Rose—sweet Rose, funny Rose, ancient Rose, the matriarch who tried to gas herself, only to shrug ambivalently and move to California when it didn’t come off.

They’re somehow at once comfortingly familiar, these deft, unhurried little portraits—everybody’s family is crazy, it’s just the details that vary—and sorrowfully surprising, too; in each, there’s an awful, true moment of vulnerability that subsumes and transmutes any lingering sense of cliché. Glaser’s technique, vocally and physically, is extraordinarily precise without ever being overshowy, and her timing, whether it’s a beat waiting for a laugh or a breath leaving space for an ache, is simply impeccable.

Most important, though, is that she inhabits each of her five characters fully, honestly, and, yes, lovingly: There’s an overpowering feeling of empathy to this 90-minute family reunion, a sense that although these people drive each other insane, they know themselves and one another—and for all their squabbling, they’d never for a minute think of cutting the ties that bind.