The art of the monologue

Following two successful one-woman plays at STC, Aviva Jane Carlin goes for the trifecta with Almost Grown Up

Aviva Jane Carlin plucking a pregnant pause from thin air in her one-woman production at STC, <i>Almost Grown Up</i>.

Aviva Jane Carlin plucking a pregnant pause from thin air in her one-woman production at STC, Almost Grown Up.

How’s she do it?

That’s what a number of actresses are wondering, as Aviva Jane Carlin returns to Sacramento for another one-woman show.

Carlin caught local audiences by surprise two years ago with her self-written, one-woman show Jodie’s Body. The core of that show was a long segment in which Carlin, wrapped in a beach towel, sat in a comfy chair and related a harrowing tale of apartheid in South Africa. Indeed, this writer can still summon the image of Carlin sitting in that dark theater, with her eyes opened wide, barely moving and yet keeping the entire audience hanging on every word.

Artistic director Peggy Shannon had to convince some reluctant board members that it was OK to take a risk on a show that included nudity; in the play, Carlin posed as a model in a life drawing class. But Carlin and Shannon had the last laugh, as Jodie’s Body proved so popular that it was extended twice by the Sacramento Theatre Company. The show also earned Carlin a Drama Desk nomination in New York in 1999. And it helped her to carve a distinctive and productive niche for herself as she’s moved into what’s sometimes called “midlife”—a time when many talented actresses find themselves looking hard for good parts in the youth-focused world of theater.

Carlin returned last season for another one-woman show, Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, a play that was as comfy as Jodie’s Body was audacious. Playing a working-class London housewife whose marriage to her very square and domineering husband—who’s never seen in the show—is unraveling, Carlin cooked and chatted and made herself entirely at home onstage. And while Shirley Valentine didn’t become quite the popular phenomenon that Jodie’s Body had been, it still did very nicely at the box office.

STC artistic director Shannon knows a good thing when she sees it, so it’s no surprise that Carlin is back in town again—this time appearing in another show she wrote for herself, titled Almost Grown Up.

Carlin plays Lizzie, a 40-ish Cockney who gets into something of an argument with her mum on the phone, and also relates some troubles with her kids. She’s soon talking about her husband as well, and the monologue becomes one long reflection on life, including how a middle-aged woman is still coming to grips with her mother’s expectations. The play is written in Cockney dialect, an exuberant form of speech that Carlin had plenty of opportunity to enjoy when she lived in London. And while the character of Lizzie bears a certain superficial resemblance to last year’s Shirley Valentine, Almost Grown Up deals with a very different slice of life.

Almost Grown Up is not an entirely new play, despite the assertion in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s season brochure that it’s a “world premiere.” Carlin has done the play before in England and in Seattle. It’s also her first play, copyrighted in 1992—but she rewrote the opening at the suggestion of director Amy Feinberg.

“This is the first time I’ve done the play with a director [other than myself],” Carlin explains. “And it’s the first time I’ve done it with a set. I used to sit in an armchair and tell the story by myself.”

But director Feinberg came up with an idea early on, Carlin explains. “She suggested that I make the phone conversation at the beginning of the play more solid, so that the opening had more of a foundation. So I wrote another three pages at the beginning, which really felt wonderful.”

Carlin and Feinberg actually rehearsed the play in New York, where Feinberg spent most of the month of March in the later stages of pregnancy, expecting to give birth soon. “Amy called Peggy in Sacramento when she realized that she’d be having the baby this spring, and explained what was happening, and said she wasn’t sure she could complete [Almost Grown Up].”

But Shannon—who was rather famously pregnant a few seasons back—and who addressed the audience from the Sacramento Theatre Company’s stage wearing maternity outfits—just wouldn’t hear of, as Carlin puts it, “a woman firing another woman for having a baby! Really!” So the rehearsals went forward in New York.

Aviva Jane Carlin appears to be sitting in a comfortable armchair, striking a reflective pose in <i>Almost Grown Up</i>.

Carlin finally came west—by train—during the week of March 11, putting her out of interview range for the better part of a week. “I love trains,” she explains, “but in a country as big as this one, it’s not my usual way. But I took the train once before from Seattle to New York, and I really felt like doing it again. So I thought I would. It was very expensive, but it was glorious. I just gazed out the window for hour after hour, and it was so stunning. And the way the tracks went up the mountainsides in the Rockies—I found myself thinking, ‘Human beings are so magnificent. Nothing stops them.’ That was very powerful.

“And the colors in the mountains were so subtle, so strange,” she adds. “We’d go past these walls of golden red rock, which was just a foot or two outside the window.

“There was also a guide who rode with us from Reno to San Francisco, who talked about the history of how the Chinese were brought to work building the railroads [back in the 1800s]. One foreman decided to take a chance on the Chinese as an experiment. And everybody stood back to see if they could do it. And the Chinese were willing to pay for their own food, since nobody had told them that the railroad should pay for the food. So I got to hear about some of the darker parts of American history all mixed up with seeing the glorious parts of the landscape.”

That description of Carlin’s trip west on the train—with its intersecting sense of history, plus an uncanny understanding of people who live alongside her (but aren’t the same), yet also laced with vivid impressions from first-person experience—gets back to the question posed at the beginning: “How does she do it?” Carlin’s strong abilities as a keen observer and a long-form storyteller are clearly a part of the answer.

“When I lived in Seattle, I worked for a time as a nanny,” she relates. “I had about five different families that I looked after. And one of the things I would do was tell stories about the children I was caring for. These were ongoing serials, which could keep the children enthralled for an hour at a time.”

It’s little wonder that these skills carried over into Carlin’s scripts, which she wrote mainly as a vehicle for making the transition from nanny to stage actress.

One of the families Carlin served as a nanny for was that of John Ratzenberger, who had been in the cast of the TV series Cheers. “And he told me, ‘You have to write these stories down,’ ” Carlin recalls. “His idea was to make some sort of animation to go with them—he was in Toy Story, and he tried to get the film industry interested.”

Nothing came from that effort, but Carlin did put many of the stories into written form, and they will probably be published in the form of a children’s book at some point.

Children’s literature also figures in Carlin’s life in another important way. The actress was born Aviva Jane Carlin, but when she reached her teens, she changed her name to Kia Siân—in honor of the tiger Shere Khan in Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book. “Not the [Disney] film,” Carlin says somewhat emphatically.

Her family has roots in post- colonial South Africa, and Carlin herself was for the most part raised in Uganda, so the exposure to Kipling came early, and Kipling’s distinctive, conversational, colloquial narrative style, in which the imaginative and fantastic live side by side with elemental (and sometimes frightening) forces and urges of nature, left its mark. Having been raised in Uganda, “I read The Jungle Book a lot,” Carlin says. And it’s very much the sort of book that was written to be read aloud, in the form of a long monologue.

“When I wanted to change my name, I wanted to change it to something significant.” So she picked the tiger as an inspiration. Carlin, who says that in reflection she must have been “the world’s nastiest teenager,” did a very thorough job having her name changed legally. “Then I got over it, but I couldn’t be bothered [changing everything back], so I took my real name as my stage name.”

Carlin doesn’t have children of her own, but she says that the two children mentioned in Almost Grown Up are “very much like the two teenage children of a friend of mine in England.”

The Cockney accent is inseparable from the narrative of Almost Grown Up. It is something Carlin observed and grew to enjoy while attending university and living in London. “It’s such a big, strong, passionate, vibrant culture,” she says, “and there are so many plays and songs that have come out of it. You just go into a London market and listen to the people. They’re so articulate and striking and the language is so brilliant. It also has its rigidity and prejudice, but there’s something so forward and alive, and the accent is so lovely.” The play is set in the 1980s, with references to punks and royalty and also to the British peace movement against nuclear weapons.

It’s a facet of Carlin’s own remarkable journey through life and the world, ranging from her early years in Africa to her education in England. And she draws it all into her script—the intensely personal exchanges between mother and daughter (from both angles), and between wife and husband, balancing everyday banalities against worries about war. Quite a lot of perspective for a one-woman show.