“It’s almost like opening your closet and showing someone you have 18 empty gin bottles.” Montpelier actress Judy Milstein uses this vivid analogy to describe the process of pouring her life out on stage for In Terms of Others, a “work-in-progress” running this weekend as part of Lost Nation Theater’s Winterfest. Milstein, 57, aims to balance “the earnestness and the playfulness” in the show, which brings together pieces developed over a period of years.
The show’s title reflects what she calls “the incessant, endless inability a lot of us have to stop comparing ourselves and trying to fit in.” Milstein believes we judge ourselves, and allow ourselves to be judged by others, against arbitrary landmarks of material and social status. What kind of car we drive, whether we own a home, when (or if) we settle into a traditional relationship — these define how we “move along in life,” she says.
If behavior falls outside accepted norms, society looks for labels, and even medical diagnoses, to categorize what is “wrong.” In Terms of Others challenges this pursuit of external definitions, which Milstein finds “so sad.” One central question she poses for her characters is, “How can I take whatever this absurdity or eccentricity in my personality is . . . and find a place where it works?”
This issue closely parallels one that Milstein has confronted with her own family, which is convinced that she suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. “My best qualities and my worst qualities are from my eccentricities,” she admits. “I think it’s true for most people.” What she perceives as unique about herself, and a potential source of strength, her family sees as a sign of fragility, in need of medical treatment.
The show itself certainly has a dash of hyperactive energy. “It’s gonna feel sort of restless. It moves very fast,” Milstein describes. She portrays a variety of characters within the two acts, from a dog psychiatrist to a woman who is self-conscious about her weight. By “poking a lot of fun and pointing out how manic everything has become,” the exuberant performer aims to create “a lot of high comedy.”
Milstein does most of the material solo, with three other actors making appearances in some sketches: LNT and Unadilla Theater regular Brooke Pearson, of Montpelier; and Hyde Park teens Aliza and Shoshana Silverstein, also Unadilla vets. Coming from Chicago is Milstein’s longtime friend, pianist Lex McCaulley, to assist with music and songs.
The actress admits that enlisting performers she knows well to join her on stage helps calm some of her fears. Honing a one-woman piece is tough in Vermont, without “that luxury of continuing to play with material” before bringing it to a larger stage, Milstein notes. “The hardest thing about living in such a small state is, you just don’t have those little coffeehouses and nooks and bars and cabarets and theaters where you can just get your ass up there and make mistakes and take risks and change things.”
She recently had even tougher obstacles to overcome, however, and staging In Terms of Others represents a quiet triumph. Its presentation was postponed from last season’s Winterfest as Milstein battled serious medical issues that kept her from acting for most of the year. Now, with her health “a clean slate,” she finds writing and performing helps her process the painful experience.
And she’s ready to talk about those metaphorical gin bottles in the closet. “If you just tell the truth on stage, you don’t ever have to go for the laugh. The laugh will find you.”
In Terms of Others by Judy Milstein. City Hall Auditorium, Montpelier. February 5-7 at 7:30 p.m., and February 8 at 2 p.m. $15, 802-229-0492 or click here.
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