By Annette Hinkle
Memories can have a powerful effect on the mind and triggered in any number of surprising ways — from a long forgotten song on the radio or a sudden whiff of cologne that triggers recollections from a previous life.
For Ilene Beckerman, the remembrance of years gone by came via a rather unusual source — her closet.
In her 1995 book “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” Beckerman offered simple descriptions and colorful illustrations of outfits she had donned throughout her life. The book begins in the 1940s with the Brownie uniform and pleated skirts of childhood and is followed by glamorous gowns of her teen years and the more mundane fashions typical of a young wife and pregnant mother in the 1960s, and, finally, more daring togs that marked her life as a divorcee in search of herself.
“It came about because I couldn’t sleep one night and a dress my mother made me came into my mind,” says Beckerman who notes that nearly everything she wore as a child was homemade. “My mother said if we bought what we could afford we’d look like we were from Brooklyn — which was not a good thing in those days.”
“We didn’t have a lot of Kodak moments in our family, but I remembered this dress,” adds Beckerman. “I had a lot of children and I thought I better draw it for them. When you’re over 60, if you don’t put it down it’s gone.”
And “put it down,” she did. As a result, Beckerman’s collection of cartoon drawings featuring outfits from her past became a photo album of sorts for the next generation.
“It tells the story of my life. My children didn’t think I had a life before I was their mother, so I wrote it for my kids,” says Beckerman. “I went to Staples to get it copied and someone went and sent it to a publisher.”
That publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, approached playwright, screenwriter and novelist Nora Ephron (the who died just last summer) to write the introduction for the book.
“Nora likes food and clothes,” says Beckerman. “She sent it back, she said it was perfect and didn’t need an intro…then she optioned it.”
That option led Ephron and her sister Delia to pen a stage version of “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” Using Beckerman’s book as a jumping off point, the Ephrons tapped into their network of friends and acquaintances who shared tales of the roles clothing has played through romances, heartbreak, self discovery and even illness.
Rosie O’Donnell contributed to the effort, as did Brooke Shields. Like Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues,” the play struck a chord among women as it delved into a range of issues through the topic of wardrobe as presented by five distinct characters — from dressing room phobia and the benefits of basic black to the emotional aftermath of mastectomies and what clothing says about self-image.
Tonight, Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center opens a production of “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” Directed by Michael Disher and featuring a rotating cast for the three weekend run, Beckerman, who lives in western New Jersey, will appear as Gingy in tonight’s opening performance.
Gingy is based on Beckerman herself and, in fact, was a nickname she earned in her youth as a redhead. In the play, the character acts as a narrator of sorts linking together the series of monologues, dialogues and “trialogues” that define the stage version. The events of Gingy’s life include multiple marriages, motherhood and the death of a child. And though she’s the inspiration for the character, this is the first time Beckerman has played the role on stage. Disher recalls how it all came about.
“Ilene wrote me and introduced herself as the real ‘Gingy’ and she said ‘I would be interested in performing myself, because I’ve never played myself outside myself,’” says Disher.
Though Beckerman grew up in New York City, she has never been to the East End before. Ironically, the stage version of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” was literally born here — and was first produced at the Bridgehampton Community House in the summer of 2008 as a benefit for the renovation of Guild Hall. Soon afterwards, it went on to have a long and successful Off-Broadway run at the Westside Theatre in New York City.
Though “Love, Loss and What I Wore” is a fairly simple concept, its popularity both as a book and a play has endured (Beckerman has written several similar books in the years since and the play won a Drama Desk award in 2010). When asked why she thinks her concept has struck such a chord, Beckerman responds, “Because it had nothing to do with me or the excitement of my life — since I’d never saved the rainforest or been groped by a politician. People find themselves in it.”
It doesn’t hurt that Nora and Delia Ephron took notice of it either.
“I think it’s amazing … when your work is optioned, it’s like giving a baby up for adoption,” says Beckerman. “They’ve made it their own. They’re’ real stories. I would never have had the opportunity to do this.”
Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center (25 Pond Lane, Southampton) presents Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore “ January 10 to 27, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. The opening night on Thursday, January 10 features a talk-back after the show with Ilene Beckerman and the cast followed by a reception in the gallery. The rotating casts also includes Brooke Alexander, Barbara Jo Howard, Katie Lee (who appeared in the Off-Broadway version), Gretta Monahan, Bethany Dellapolla, Susan Cincotta, Paula Brannon, Deborah Marshall, Susan Wojcik, Catherine Maloney and Edna Perez Winston. Tickets for opening night and reception are $35. General admission is $22 (students with ID $12). Call 287-4377 to reserve. In conjunction with the show, the gallery space outside the theater will feature a fashion display of mannequins dressed in black outfits provided by local shop keepers.