Ask any woman what she wore to her prom, her wedding or any other memorable event, and she will describe it for you in excruciating detail. She may even pull the outfit from her closet and force you to admire it with her.
Four-time Tony-nominated actress Tovah Feldshuh remembers her bat mitzvah dress: a white brocade number with a green cummerbund, a white jacket and a green pillbox hat, all from Bonwit Teller, the famed New York City department store. “I wanted to look like Jacqueline Kennedy,” the 57-year-old mother of two told the Forward, “and I succeeded as best I could.”
Feldshuh and I were sitting at a round table in a large, empty room at the Westside Theatre, in Manhattan, where Nora and Delia Ephron’s “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” has been playing since last fall. It was a rainy evening in October, and Feldshuh was, like most self-respecting New York women, garbed all in black. She typically dresses with impeccable taste, but in this instance she wore a nondescript top, warm-up pants and sneakers, her brown hair pulled into a ponytail. The occasion: rehearsal.
Feldshuh, along with Aisha de Haas, Erin Dilly, Barbara Feldon (of “Get Smart” Fame) and Ashley Austin Morris headlined the one-year anniversary cast of “Love, Loss,” which pays homage to woman’s best friend: clothes. But this is not the latest mutation in chick-lit entertainment. “Love, Loss,” directed by Karen Carpenter and based on the book “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” (Algonquin Books, 2005) by Ilene Beckerman, reminds us that what we wear is intrinsically linked to who we are, where we came from, whom we loved and whom we lost.
“My mother saved my first tutu,” Feldshuh mused that evening. “She saved my carrot blanket. She saved my cowgirl hat. She saved my pink corduroy jacket I wore as a little girl.”
Feldshuh — who in March will be the narrator of an HBO documentary on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — spoke as if performing, with echoes of her elite university affiliations (she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught at Yale) and of the successful career she has forged (she’s won numerous acting awards, and in 2004, “Golda’s Balcony,” in which Feldshuh starred, became the longest-running, one-woman show in Broadway’s history). With a touch of old-school Hollywood, she said things like, “our beloved audience,” and “Is the recorder on, darling?” (I don’t know if she calls everyone “darling,” but she often says it to me, possibly because she and my mother are childhood friends.) Even her whisper commanded attention.
Feldshuh, who is known for playing brave women in “Golda’s Balcony” and “Irena’s Vow,” and memorable Jewish mothers in the films “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “A Walk on the Moon,” donned a new hat in “Love, Loss.” The play covers everything from mother/daughter relationships and exes to puberty and dressing rooms, giving Feldshuh a chance to flex her comedic muscles while still delivering the poignant performances for which she’s known. Shrieks and facial acrobatics came in handy with lines like, “I’m an eight, I’ve always been an eight!!” and, “You’re pretty enough for all normal purposes.” Almost unrecognizable when she relaxed her perfect posture and adopted a smoker’s drawl to play a woman who wore crotchless pants to visit her boyfriend in prison, she gave her most memorable monologue about a simple purse.
“I hate my purse,” she began. “I absolutely hate it. If you’re one of those women who think there’s something great about purses, don’t even bother listening, because I have nothing to say to you.”
Feldshuh, however, understands purses. She grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., the bucolic upper-middle class suburb that has represented privilege, education and Jewish culture ever since the post-World War II era. As a girl, she wore fall outfits — winter outfits and matching coats, gloves and hats — from Saks Fifth Avenue or Lord & Taylor. Her mother, who put herself through college working as a secretary, taught her that nothing was too expensive, as long as it lasted. And her grandmother and grandfather, respectively a tailor and a men’s clothing designer who arrived on Ellis Island in 1903, instilled in her an appreciation for the finest fabrics and clothing.
“How you dressed said volumes about who you were in my growing-up process, because my mother and my father were children of immigrants, and they had made it,” Feldshuh said. “When we played in the snow as little kids,” she continued, “you wore your winter coat and your winter mittens and your matching hat with your fur scarf and your leggings and your beautiful little boots, and you played in the snow like a young lady about to go into a sled.… It was a different time. You dressed for any occasion.… [It] was a statement for the Jewish immigrant of safety.”
When I asked Feldshuh how she gets into character, she replied, “Mull it over in your mind, and stay loose.” Of course, it’s more complicated than that, and to demonstrate, she read aloud from her “Love, Loss” script: “If I could draw, I would draw you the dress my mother gave me when I was 5 years old.”
Feldshuh stopped to explain that she would imagine herself in the lilac dress she wore to her first piano recital at the age of 9. “It’s a melded memory,” she clarified, “but it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s what we call a hot prop — as long as it’s an image that turns the motor of the actor.”
She continued: “The first thing you do is stay relaxed and see where the thing takes you. The second thing you do, if you don’t feel anything (which is okay), you make sure you communicate clearly with the audience so that you give them the opportunity to feel. Because in the end, the actor’s primary job is to engage the house.” Each word she spoke came louder and faster than the one before, and she went on: “If I really connect with that dress, my favorite dress ever, then you get to start running your tape. And if you run your movie in your head of your dress… then you’ve got stakes in this. You’re experiencing your life through the text.” She smiled, adding, with a devilishly fierce whisper, “And that be the name of the game.”
Abigail Jones is a journalist in New York City.