Delia Ephron has no trouble recalling what she wore on her first date with Jerome Kass, the man who would become her husband: a raspberry silk sweater. It’s really no surprise, then, that the woman who can so vividly remember an outfit she wore over three decades ago would co-author a play with her late sister, Nora, on the connection between a woman’s wardrobe and her life choices.
The sisters’ play, Love, Loss and What I Wore, opened at the Westside Theatre in Manhattan in 2009 and ran for two and a half years, garnering a 2010 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. It begins a two-week run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company on June 25.
Based on the Ilene Beckerman book of the same name, the play offers intimate glimpses into the lives of five women, each of whom have to deal with different pivotal moments. The one common thread linking their stories is the importance of what they were wearing during those events, both at the time and in their memories.
Love, Loss and What I Wore marks Ephron’s first foray into theater, but she has been writing for almost her entire adult life — books (The Lion Is In, the upcoming memoir Sister Mother Husband Dog), screenplays (You’ve Got Mail, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and countless articles for publications from the Wall Street Journal to More magazine. If there was ever anyone genetically predisposed to be a writer, it would be her: She is the daughter of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who co-wrote such classics as Belles on Their Toes, Carousel and Desk Set, and the sister of Nora, Hallie and Amy — acclaimed writers all.
During a phone interview from her home in New York City’s West Village, Ephron, 68, talked about growing up in the family business, how her play’s script is fungible depending on which country it is being performed in, and more. Excerpts from the interview follow:
How did you and your sister come to write Love, Loss and What I Wore?
Nora found the book. It was sent to her before it was even published in 1995. I didn’t have anything in common with Ilene, but, while reading the book, I began to remember all of my experiences — and my clothes. Ilene discovered that if you ask women about their clothes, they will tell you about their lives.
How long did it take to turn the book into the play?
It was a 14-year process. We optioned it, we had workshops of the play, but it just never worked — on any level. We did a workshop in L.A. that was so terrible that when we left the theater, Nora and I never spoke of it again. And so, we gave up on it.
Many years later, a director named Karen Carpenter found a copy of the script on a shelf at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. She had been carrying it around with her and she asked to do our play. Linda Lavin came in for a reading of Gingie, the main character, and suddenly it worked; something happened. It’s a real lesson about believing in your own work, because Nora and I both gave up — which was not the right thing to do.
So you went from giving up on the play to seeing it performed all over the world.
I write a lot about this in my upcoming book, because it ended up being such a joyful experience. It’s been performed in Paris, in South Africa, in Israel — that might be of interest to your readers. It is just amazing that the theme of the play is so universal that it can go everywhere, Manila to Mexico City.
Does the script ever have to be changed to accommodate for cultural differences?
I have no idea about some of them, but I do know that in Paris, they changed it quite a bit — there’s a lot about ski clothes. And in Australia, there was a hysterically brilliant comic actress who wrote a piece about being a teenager that everyone in the audience thought was hysterical — and I didn’t. It wasn’t native to the American experience in any way.
You and Nora both had much more experience writing screenplays than plays. How did you know this would work better onstage than onscreen?
When you adapt something — a book to a movie, a book to a play — the material tells you what it is and how to do it. We began to collect stories about wedding dresses and prom dresses and closets — which can be a nightmare. We asked all of our friends to tell us their stories, and they were so generous with them. We knew that the only place where they would work was on the stage.
Did you always know you would go into the family business?
Yes and no. We were all really groomed to be writers. I avoided it for a while, as did my sisters Hallie and Amy. Nora came into it immediately.
I came into it in my late 20s. It was sort of gradual, but then there was that one point in your 20s where you realize that you only have one life and it’s going away, and then it suddenly gets more serious.
You seem to be a big draw at Jewish book fairs.
I love the experience of going to JCCs — I did the circuit for the last year. It is wonderful how much the Jewish community embraces writers, and it was great fun for me.
You know, men can equate clothing with life-changing events as well. Have you ever thought of doing a sequel that focused on the male experience?
No, actually. With men, it always seems to me that it’s all cars and music. And there’s so much for men out there already! Did you read that the number of parts for women in movies has dropped to 28 percent? It was in the L.A. Times.
We really love that this play celebrates the lives of women. Since Nora and I both worked in the movie business, we were both aware of what kind of short shrift women got.
Other than the ability to write more roles for women, what are some other differences you have experienced in writing for the theater versus writing for film?
A movie is fixed on the screen, but a play changes every night. The mood the audience is in, the mood the actors are in — sometimes magic happens.