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Me, Myself and Why?

Sometimes, the Only Thing Standing in the Way of a Great One-Woman Show is One Woman

Try Again: Frannie Sheridan manages to steal her own spotlight in I Tried to be Normal.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/18/2002

I Tried to Be Normal

Frannie Sheridan

Theatre Project may very well be the mostly aptly named theater in Baltimore, shunning the usual standbys and obvious crowd-pleasers for difficult and often controversial shows that are still in development. While this demonstrates a courageous investment in contemporary theater, it sometimes makes a night at Theatre Project seem more like a brainteaser than entertainment. Frannie Sheridan's autobiographical one-woman show, I Tried to Be Normal, falls squarely in this category, alternately fascinating and bewilderingly ineffectual, leaving the audience to puzzle out why something with so much promise could fall so flat.

Sheridan grew up in Canada, one of seven children raised by Holocaust survivors who were so traumatized by their experiences that they hid their Judaism even in their new country, going so far as to raise their children Catholic.

Her parents' terrifying treatment at the hands of the Nazis, and the paranoia that resulted from it, are incredibly compelling in their portrayal. Her father was nearly beaten to death in Vienna just days before finishing his medical training and left for dead in a lab filled with his slain classmates. By the time he returned home, his parents had already been carted away. He joined the French army as a medic but was arrested by British soldiers and brought to Canada; because he spoke German, he was mistaken for a Nazi and imprisoned with them. Even after he was released and set up a medical practice in Saskatchewan, he was beaten again, this time by a Jew-hating doctor. Sheridan's mother, meanwhile, was a nanny in Germany whose parents were killed during Kristallnacht, when Nazi soldiers rampaged through the streets, rounding up 30,000 Jews and destroying Jewish businesses and temples.

As a result of all these horrors, Sheridan explains, her home became a battleground. Her father insisted the family pretend to be Catholic and live in constant preparation for another Holocaust; her mother wanted to practice her faith and pass it on to her children. The family was so divided, she says, that the children were forced to take sides spying on each other and their parents.

It's a heartbreaking and yet understandable reaction to tragedy that could make for extraordinarily gripping theater. If Sheridan had chosen to focus more on her parents' story, the play would have been truly phenomenal. Unfortunately, the title of the play is I Tried to Be Normal, and it's the "I" that jams her up. While both a gifted actress and writer, Sheridan herself is the least interesting part of the show. Whenever she focuses her attention on her life and career, the show slows to a crawl, becoming clunky and clichéd.

To illustrate her personal struggles with her identity, she raises her arms in the air and says, "OK, pieces of my heart, chunks of my soul . . . I need to know who I am." Her description of her stand-up career, meanwhile, seems oddly desperate, going so far as to say, "I'm funny, really I am. I'm certifiably funny." She proceeds to illustrate this by telling a joke that she insists killed at a showcase. All it gets at Theatre Project is a few halfhearted titters. And comic lines, like when she says of her parents' refrigerator, "It was like a retirement home for vegetables in there. The beans weren't beans, they were has-beans," beg a rim shot.

Sheridan also pulls out a smoking alter-ego named Frankie in the beginning of the show, who adds nothing but a sense of disjointedness to the proceedings. And her ultra-happy ending is so over the top that I kept waiting for her to say, "Just kidding," and tell us what really happened to everyone.

For sure, I Tried to Be Normal has all the makings of a great show--an impressive story, filled with intriguing characters, performed by a capable actress. All it needs is focus. Lisa Kron's fabulous one-woman show at Center Stage in 2000, 2.5 Minute Ride, tackled what it can be like to be the child of Holocaust survivors, beautifully interweaving the past and present, humor and haunting tales of brutality. Sheridan seems to have a story just as compelling within her. If she changed the name to We Tried to Be Normal, maybe she could find it.

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