Julia Sweeney in her newone-woman show
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Julia Sweeney in her new
one-woman show
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The magic of the 75-minute, one-woman show Julia Sweeney: In The Family Way is in the details. A true story of Sweeney's adoption of a child from another country, the piece is interwoven with hilarious and poignant moments in a gentle pattern that finally proves effective. Written and performed by Sweeney, who is known primarily from her work as the androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live and for her previous one-woman show God Said "Ha!", The Family Way isn't always as moving as "Ha!" but one leaves the theater entertained and gratified by its intimacy.

As related in God Said "Ha!", Sweeney battled cancer successfully but had to have a hysterectomy. In the new piece, she wakes up and realizes in her late 30s that she has everything -- a successful career, terrific friends, a glamorous life -- but "forgot to have a family." This sets off a scramble to rectify that situation, a scramble that is all the more because the comic, who now lives in Los Angeles, is not married. The stories of her dating travails while grappling with the question of children are enjoyable, if somewhat unsurprising. Her boyfriend at the time when she was taking her first steps toward family, whom she calls "Joe Number 11," endeavors valiantly to offer support, but the stresses of the quest prove too much for him (as they do for many others).

Sweeney's trip to the fertility clinic is hilariously described: She sees dozens of other single women who seem to be CEOs of Everything and now have embarked just as aggressively and independently on the Personal Fulfillment Project. Sweeney's ovaries are still intact, permitting her a slim chance to give birth through a surrogate mother at great expense, but she soon changes direction toward adoption.

In general what makes Sweeney's work effective is her persona -- one of exaggerated normalcy, a Midwestern (actually, Pacific Northwestern) air of cautious surprise at everything mixed with an appreciation of the absurd. The events depicted here are not nearly as heart-wrenching as those Sweeney chronicled in God Said "Ha!", and her relatively calm delivery does not offer as dramatic a contrast with the material; would that director Mark Brokaw (This is Our Youth, How I Learned to Drive) had prodded Sweeney to greater animation in her delivery. Additionally, we wonder what her raucous family's opinions about her endeavors might be. Perhaps Sweeney wished to avoid focusing on parts of her life that she covered in her first show, but that decision may have deprived us of moments of connection to her plight, which in most families would be slightly controversial and rife with dramatic/comedic potential.

Nonetheless, Sweeney's approach is polished and her timing is right on. She recounts memorable moment in her world tour, including one in Peru that is staggering in its poignancy. Her perseverance in her quest leaves us with images and anecdotes that we may feel compelled to share with friends who have not seen the show. Because the topic of adoption is commonly presented in third-person documentary and narrative forms, it's powerful and intimate to hear a single mother's first-hand account of the process. And because the topic is such a personal one, it can be eye-opening. To judge from conversations overheard in the theater after the performance, this is a show that can actually alter people's opinions of what is important in life. That's quite an achievement.