Carolyn Michel is one suit and a pair of eyeglasses away from becoming a man.
In a roomy rehearsal space upstairs at Florida Studio Theatre, Michel, a longtime Sarasota actress, is sitting at a vanity dresser adjusting her short dark wig.
Expertly coiffed to resemble the combed-back ’do of a retired accountant and father-of-three, the hairpiece is one of three wigs Michel wears in her latest one-woman tour de force, “Family Secrets,” which opened June 30, in FST’s Gompertz Theatre.
A semi-autobiographical play by actress and writer Sherry Glaser, “Family Secrets” is a five-character solo show about a dysfunctional Jewish family from the Bronx, N.Y. It premiered off Broadway in 1993 with Glaser performing all five roles and went on to become the longest-running one-woman show in off-Broadway history.
“Family Secrets” opens with Michel dressed as Mort, the family’s irritated patriarch, and closes with Rose, the lovesick grandmother who marries long past her prime.
Of the five characters in the play, including the manic-depressive mother, the bisexual daughter and the angst-ridden teen, Michel says Mort was the hardest to nail down.
“Obviously, I can’t be a man, but I can be the essence of a man,” Michel says. “And I have certainly met men like Mort.”
It’s not the first time Michel has had to lower her voice and don a man’s wig on stage. Growing up, she was frequently cast as a boy in many of the plays she performed at her all-girls high school in St. Louis. It wasn’t until 10th grade that she finally played a girl: Anne Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Nearly unrecognizable in a pair of trousers and enormous Woody Allen-style glasses, Michel so naturally embodies the incorrigible Mort it’s hard to believe she found the part difficult at first.
It’s also hard to believe that this is the actress’ first dress rehearsal in front of a live audience and the first time she’s changed clothes on stage between characters.
“The challenge is sustaining focus and energy throughout the length of the show,” Michel says of performing solo. “It’s thrilling and terrifying at the same time.”
Three years ago, she played Ann Landers in FST’s “The Lady With All the Answers” and, prior to that, the title character in “Rose” and Dorothy Parker in “One Foot in Scarsdale” — all were one-woman shows.
It’s a lot of pressure, and Michel handles it with the ease and panache of a veteran stage actress. From the front row, her husband and director, Howard Millman, the former producing artistic director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, sits quietly and beams.
With each howl from the test audience, Millman’s smile gets wider and more content.
When Glaser performed the play 17 years ago, she was mimicking her own family members. Michel, however, is not.
“My family isn’t even remotely like this,” she laughs. “But I don’t think it matters. There’s not a family alive that doesn’t have its quirks. This play is about universal love, that we are all family connected by the strengths and frailties of our humanity.”
If you go
“Family Secrets” runs through July 29, at Florida Studio Theatre. For more information, call 366-9000 or visit www.floridastudiotheatre.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].