Applause: Lighting up the stage with Joanna Gleason
Fairfield’s Joanna Gleason recalls how, when she was 15 and having a “teenage meltdown,” she told her father of her anxiety.
“Dad puts down the newspaper and asks, ‘Are you being driven from your home by Cossacks with sabers?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Then sit and eat your cereal.’ ”
That’s the kind of remembrance that frames the moving and funny, realistic and fantastical “Out of the Eclipse,” the act which Gleason brings to the Quick Center on Nov. 8. Having lost both parents within a three-month period in 2017 (her mother that June, her father that September), Gleason decided to try making sense of it all.
With the assistance of a four-piece band and a vocal trio, “The Moonstones,” rather than “and-then-I-wrote,” Gleason entertainingly digs into life as a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, raconteur, teacher, writer, director, night club performer and Tony Award-winning actress (for “Into the Woods”).
“My goal wasn’t to be brave,” said Gleason, interviewed one recent afternoon at the sprawling home she shares with her husband, the Oscar-nominated actor Chris Sarandon and black Lab mix, Lucy. We’re sitting in a room dominated by a table and chairs from her parents’ Los Angeles house. In one chair in particular she will unwind by reading poetry, listening to music “and just breathing.” Beyond a large window are trees, lawn and a driveway she will walk up and down when it’s dark.
She used to be afraid of the dark, she confesses. Now it’s from where her inspiration takes hold, as she walks, talking to herself, “feeling the power of the universe” on one level. On another, she makes plans for the movie she’s writing and directing, for teaching acting classes, for appearing in concert this Christmas at the Westport Country Playhouse.
As for “Out of the Eclipse,” which comes directly from New York’s Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, she said, “I tell a story, a memoir, not a memorial and not traditionally a cabaret show. But a theater piece where I’m talking directly to the audience, telling what I went through, what my parents went through and how the stories they told took on new meaning.”
Courageous in its premise, the act is also embracing.
“It’s the most naked I can be on stage,” said Gleason. “I went into darkness, like an eclipse, and I came out the other side, rebounding towards the light. It took art, it took friends, it took music. And it took time. All you can say to people who lost loved ones is ‘I can’t imagine and yet I know.’”
The act is both lighthearted and serious, interweaving tunes like “With a Song in My Heart,” “Where or When,” “All Through the Night” and “Lost in the Stars” with stories that ask “Are we alone?”
And, yes, she gossips about being in the flop musical, “Nick and Nora,” where one night, aware of negative audience reaction, she resisted going on for her next scene.
“It was literally as if had a bull’s-eye on my tuchis,” she explained in that witty style of hers.
Though finally relenting and returning to the scene, she knew nothing could save a production New York Times critic Frank Rich labeled “an almost instantly forgettable mediocrity.” It lasted nine performances.
Yet, Rich also wrote that Gleason is “an astringent comic actress with impeccable timing and her own strong voce.” Whatever else it was or wasn’t, also in the “Nick and Nora” cast was Sarandon, with whom Gleason fell in love and whom she later married.
With Sarandon, she shares a blended family.
“It’s a ragtag bag of immigrants and emigres,” she said, “who understand what it means when you go ‘oy.’ They are diverse, culturally, geographically. Greek Orthodox, my brother’s wife who’s from Rwanda, his two daughters from his first marriage who are Japanese-Americans, my son, my gay African-American nephew, my Latino nephew. We have straight, gay, black, white, Asian, Latino, Jewish and non-Jewish, a doctor, even an orthodontist. This is not about blood. But we’re safe because we trust each other with our love.”
Born in Toronto, Gleason and family (she has a brother and a sister) moved around a lot, from Canada to New York to California, back to New York.0
“I am who I am because of who my parents were,” she said. “They took me to the theater, they played show albums in the house, Dad sang theater tunes, they came to the high school plays I was in. My grandmother had been in the Yiddish theater in Canada, my Dad had been a performer. The apple fell very close to the tree. And there was something wonderful in all that. I am not my resume. I was brought up to believe that love is a chief currency, gratitude is a chief currency, hard work is essential, rejection is necessary.”
And so is loss. “The show is incredibly personal because of the parties involved and my relationship to them,” she said. “But it’s also very relatable for it says that it’s okay not to know how to feel. Grief takes time and comes in many forms.”
She remembers how, after “Eclipse” at 54 Below, people not wanting to leave, sitting and talking about their parents and whom they’ve lost. She remembers a 97-year-old man who just wanted to kiss her. She obliged.
She remembers seven Japanese business men, speaking no English but completely rapt. She remembers a couple of bouncer-looking types from Texas with tears in their eyes.
“I did not know that it would be this,” she said.
“When I was in school and maybe 10, 11 years old, the teacher went around the room asking what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said I want to be able to speak to every person on this planet. And have them understand me. That’s what artists do. What I realized I could do.”
Fulfilling that pledge with delight, courage and insight, Gleason, by taking a deep dive into her history, helps her audiences do the same into theirs.
“Dad used to say ‘Keep an eye on the rear-view mirror because you need to remember where you came from and what it took to get here, so you can be here.’ It’s all kind of miraculous, isn’t it?”
“Out of the Eclipse” is at the Quick Center, Fairfield University,1073 North Benson Rd., Fairfield, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. Call 203-254-4010 or visit quickcenter.com.
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.