Deb Margolin insists she’s not beautiful, but that is not actually true.
“I feel like our lives are littered with beauty,” said the OBIE Award-winning artist. “I am moved by the interstitial moments of daily life–these tiny moments of beauty and nobody looks at them.”
Well, Margolin does. And as self-deprecating as the playwright, actor, comedian, mother and Yale University associate professor may be, the beauty of these moments—and her reactions to them as she synthesizes experience into art—light her from within.
She’s a beauty of a conversationalist, too, the kind of person who speaks in original adages and aphorisms, makes prisms of words, and says things off the top of her head that an enterprising meme-maker might easily stick on an e-card and attribute to Gandhi or Marilyn Monroe.
On being a teenager: “Everything you do that is adhering to your passion is courageous.”
On courage: “It’s the alignment of one’s actions to one’s deepest beliefs.”
On comedy: “Mortality is the floor on which comedy dances.”
And on her latest show, “8 STOPS,” now playing at the Randolph Road Theater? “This show has my whole heart.”
A big heart, a complex heart—a heart that’s dealt with motherhood, cancer, life in the suburbs, and the big, vague malaise of what Margolin calls, in her show, “the grief of endless compassion.”
“I’m not a cynic, I’m a comedian,” she explained. “And I love this show, because even when we talk about grief, we have to see the enormous beauty that’s there.
“There’s always some potential source of joy.”
The joy in “8 STOPS” is brilliantly interspersed with other feelings: fear, pain, pride, bewilderment, loss and the overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes with parenthood. And at the center of this one-woman-show is Margolin: a female, grown-up catcher in the rye, determined to keep all the children in her life (and on its periphery) safe and secure.
“I wrote this show when Jay Wahl, now the show’s director, invited me to the Innovation Studio,” said Margolin, referring to the SEI Innovation Studio at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, where Wahl is currently the artistic director. In 2013, Margolin took part in a playwriting workshop for solo performers there, led by poet-performer Dael Orlandersmith. “We just wrote all day in the beautiful room—and at the end we had to present to the public.”
And thus “8 STOPS” was born.
“We worked on it dramaturgically and physically,” she said. “It’s about my son Bennett; it’s about motherhood and mother heart—it’s a comedy, but it’s about death.”
And life, of course: life in suburbia, life in the hospital, life before and after parenthood turns the heart to glass.
Margolin herself was born in Manhattan and raised in Westchester, N.Y., in a not-particularly-artsy family.
“I went to the theater, like, once,” she remembered. “We went to see ‘Oklahoma,’ and we sat up where the helicopters landed, and I thought, ‘Someday I will stand on one of those stages and I’ll do something really great on it.’”
Not something like “Oklahoma”—to this day Margolin’s not a fan—but something different. Something unconventional. The thought lay dormant as she went to New York University, where her dad was a professor, and started an unauthentic career as a writer for a cosmetics magazine, despite being allergic to makeup.
“My life was changed when this crazy guy named Joe Friendly, who thought he was Jesus, came into it,” she said, referring to the activist-producer who at the time drove a moving van in Manhattan. “He was nuts, but he hired me to type his thesis.”
He also introduced her to the world of alternative theater, taking her to a show at the Women’s Experimental Theater in the late 1970s. Activist, feminist and theater director Roberta Sklar was co-artistic director at the time, and a piece called “Electra Speaks” piqued the young writer’s interest.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I thought all women’s parts were written by men. ‘Beauties and cuties.’ Then this —theater as a radical political act! — it blew me away!”
At a performance by Spider Woman, “an extraordinary panoply of women” creating theater in glorious diversity, Margolin met Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, who would later become her partners in the Split Britches comedy troupe. She also felt something deep inside.
“I was thinking, ‘Damn, I can do that!’” she remembered. “And then, ‘Yes, I’d like to do this, too.’”
Margolin started out by writing for Weaver and Shaw—a funny but poignant piece about Weaver’s relatives in Appalachia—then got on stage when one of the actors dropped out.
“Lois was visionary enough to see I had something to add,” she explained. “We worked together for 15 years.”
During that time, Margolin was building a career of her own as a playwright, a teacher, a solo performer. She built a life, too: marriage and two children, adventures in suburban Republican Montvale, N.J., where her fish-out-of-water shtick is rooted in her identity as the nerdy Jewish bookworm she said she never ceased to be. Within her deep oeuvre, Margolin has written a play inspired by a neighbor’s offhand insult, and in another play, she has explored the human need to criticize.
“I really like being made fun of,” she said. “I find the insult very intimate. Respect is more distant.”
And in “8 STOPS,” respect is innate, something that bubbles up from the self, from the heart. Something that’s found, for Margolin, through performing.
“The play goes back and forth between the astonishing joys of raising children and the horrors of having stem cell transplants,” she said. “I would have gone mad if I didn’t have theater; it’s a way of dignifying life experiences.”
And a way of sorting them out, from her son Bennett’s childhood fears about death (and her own) to her limited view of the home lives of other kids, be they her neighbors, her son’s friends, or strangers like the boy whose anecdote gives the play its name. Margolin looks out at life from a now-healthy body and a now-empty nest and she likes what she sees, even as she turns it into theater.
“I have climbed to the top of Objectivity Mountain,” she said. “The air is thin, but the vision is good.”
Unexpected Stage Company presents Deb Margolin in the Washington area premiere of “8 STOPS” through July 31 at Randolph Road Theater, 4010 Randolph Road, Wheaton. Shows are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets range from $10 to $27.50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org.