Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Lucia Berlin: Stories"

Lucia Berlin: Stories
From A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

Jeri Lynn Cohen
Each of five stories by an author who once claimed, “Everything I write is autobiographical” offers independently a glimpse of one salient moment in her rollercoaster life.  When presented together, the five provide a heart-warming, inspirational journey from heart-breaking depths to her victory over alcohol addiction.  As a short-story writer, Lucia Berlin was only marginally known and read during her lifetime; but eleven years after her death, a compilation of her life’s stories was published as A Manual for Cleaning Women, hitting the New York Times bestseller list in its second week.  It is from that book -- which went on to sell more than all her previous books combined -- that the team members from Z Space’s Word for Word have chosen five stories to present as a new work entitled Lucia Berlin: Stories. 

Members of the Ensemble of Lucia Berlin: Stories
Told in the company’s unique manner of theatrically staging the written words right off the book’s page with sentences often pieced together in sequenced phrases by several actors in passing, Lucia Berlin: Stories is powerfully narrated by an exceptional cast who convey with humor, pathos, care, and empathy the author’s total story through these five pieces.  Nancy Shelby and JoAnne Winter direct this eight-person ensemble through a constant maze of complicated, constant changes in scenes, characters, and motifs.  And always the story reigns supreme as sentences and paragraphs flow seamlessly from one actor to the next, each relating the story as if reading from the book’s page. 

With all its dependence on the words of the story, Word for Word opens Lucia Berlin: Stories with a powerful, silent sequence (choreographed by Christy Funsch) as a woman lashes out in an alcohol-induced rage, is arrested and bound, and is transferred to a cell of some sort.  She and the cast around her – all of whom figuratively mime her chaos and capture – are dressed in grey-striped outfits (designed by Michelle Mulholland) that could serve as the wardrobe for either prison or a mental institution, both of which we will learn our heroine will often frequent as this and the other stories progress.  The loss of control, the desperate need for another drink, and the agony of the alcohol’s consequences are all captured in these first couple of minutes – all to be repeated in more graphic sequences as we learn more details of her life.

Jeri Lynn Cohen
Jeri Lynn Cohen is Carlotta in the first story, “Her First Detox,” and will also be known as Lucille and Mrs. Bevins in the stories to follow; but her “Everywoman” is clearly always the author, Lucia.  Ms. Cohen is nothing short of brilliant as she conveys the anxiety, the deviousness, and the deceit as well as the good-naturedness, generous spirit, and boundless ingenuity of a woman who is drunk more often than not.  She is a mother of four who somehow makes breakfast for them at 7 a.m. after sneaking out at 4 a.m. to walk one-and-a-half miles to be the first in line to buy a four-dollar bottle of cheap vodka at 6 a.m. (from the story “Unmanageable”).  In “Emergency Room Notebook,” she is an emergency room attendant who kibitzes with her co-worker about good-and-bad deaths/smart-and-dumb suicides in between also comforting families of the newly dead or patiently once again listening to the fake screams of the woman known as Marlene the Migraine – all done before she frantically dashes to the parking lot for a giant swig from a bottle of booze.  Throughout each of these stories, Ms. Cohen conveys a woman who is not a demon, who could be someone we all know, but who definitely has a monstrous, pervasive problem that consumes much of her life and effects the lives of kids who must hide her keys and wallet in order to keep her safe and hopefully sober (not).

Indiia Wilmott, Norman Gee, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Gendell Hernández & Ryan Williams French
One of the most important aspects of Lucia Berlin’s works and this cast’s depictions is to put a face of humanity on those we often pass quickly in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, or on Any/Every Street throughout the Bay Area.  Those we see as just another drunk are in these stories real people with names, quirks, heart, and humor; and they are a community of people the rest of us mostly want to forget.  Yes, there are the moments when they are rolling and reeking in their own wretched situations as is shown in several of the stories (like a bone-chilling chain-gang-like opening of “Unmanageable” where a line-up of the intoxicated chant in grunts and groans while stomping their feet in a dance of desperation).  However, we see the chumminess and the camaraderie that “Lucia” has with her fellow lovers of the bottle in scenes like a very funny incident in the story “502” where her abandoned car rolls into the inhabited Chevy Cosair of Ace, Champ, Little Ripple, and Horatio – guys who may be drunks like she but who are also people that any of us just might like if we got to know them.

The myriad of roles the other eight members of this ensemble play to fill in the details of Lucia’s stories range from street drunks to her kids, from doctors/nurses to grieving/wailing Gypsies, from jail warden and neighborhood cop to inmates in a prison.  The variety of accents, demeanors, personalities, ages, and sexes each person is asked to assume (often for only a few seconds) is astounding; and the orchestrated movements, shifts, and transformations occur without a word dropped from the continuous flow of the story’s narration among the nine ensemble members.  Cassidy Brown, Ryan Williams French, Norman Gee, Gendell Hernández, Delia MacDougall, Indiia Wilmott, and Phil Wong are together an ensemble extraordinaire – each bringing well-calculated, naturally appearing nuances and particulars to the many persona they inhabit.

Cassidy Brown, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Norman Gee & Phil Wong
Lest anyone doubt, there is a happy ending in perhaps the unlikeliest of locales and situations.  Amidst the otherwise daily boredom, putrid smells, and cramped quarters (six to a cell meant for two) of a prison, the evening’s finale “Here It Is Saturday” is an uplifting look at a now sober-for-good Mrs. Bevins (aka “Lucia”) teaching a writing class to an eclectic class of felons, men whose lives are made just a bit brighter by a woman whom they know has traveled some of the same alleys and inhabited some of the same cells they have.  The final image of the evening is still somber and sobering, but the message is one of a heroine who conquers her demons and touches many lives during both the difficult journey and at its conclusion.

Nine movable, stackable boxes are the principal set design of Oliver DiCicco, Naomie Kremer, and Jacqueline Scott; but in their simplicity comes a plethora of scenes and uses – all becoming part of the constant dance this cast performs in telling a total story that is always on the move.  Particularly powerful is the video accompaniment to many of those scenes as designed by Naomie Kremer -- never any more impactful than a stark sidewalk and its wavering cracks as Lucia makes her 4 a.m. trip and back to the liquor store.  Jim Cave’s lighting casts the patterns, spots, and shadows that further bring these stories to life, while the jazz score composed by Marcus Shelby both honors the love of jazz Ms. Berlin is said to have as well as mirrors the tension, the loneliness, and the occasional triumphs of Lucia and her fellow characters.

Members of the Ensemble
While each of the five stories serves its part in telling Lucia’s overall journey, “Emergency Room Notes” is one that perhaps could be either eliminated or shortened without doing much damage to her overall story.  It is easily a stand-alone, often very funny look at emergency rooms and the people who work there, with the final note that even people who are saving others’ lives have issues themselves (in this case, drinking).  But for the total two-and-a-half-hour Lucia Berlin: Stories (including intermission), this particular story is one of the longest without adding elements quite as essential as do the others.

To a long line of Word for Word, uniquely and successfully related stories that jump from page to stage now joins the world premiere of Lucia Berlin: Stories.  For all of us who harbor stereotypes about the drunks in the street or about those drunks in the office, home, or school, Lucia Berlin: Stories is a must-ingredient of our recovery plan.

Rating: 5 E

Lucia Berlin: Stories continues through March 11, 2018 in production by Z Space’s Word for Word at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Julie Schuchard

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