A professor of playwriting at Illinois State University once told James Sherman, "Every playwright writes at least one play to get back at his parents." Sometimes they write more than one. Case in point: Eugene O'Neill, likewise Edward Albee. "Well," says James Sherman before a preview at the Westside Theatre, "I wrote this play because I love my parents." His eyes crinkle behind his horn-rims. "I thought of calling it Three Short Jewish Women."
Instead he called his play From Door to Door, and those three Jewish women are, like Albee's WASPs, his own mother (under another name), his grandmother (under her actual name, Bessie) and — because it was about the fortitude of females — a granddaughter more or less the same age as playwright Sherman.
His mother, Lillian Wolmak Sherman, who has lived all her life in and around Chicago, where he was born, "is going to be here next week, watching and kvelling. She once said she was going to write her memoirs. When that looked like it wasn't going to happen, I said, 'I'll do it for you.' That became this play."
Sherman's Beau Jest ran for two-and-a-half years and 1,069 performances Off-Broadway. This is a comedy of a deeper sort. "From generation to generation" is, in fact, how L'dor v'dor translates to English, but those Yiddish words in the song the granddaughter remembers her family singing also, to her, mean "from door to door" — all the places her parents were always moving from and to: Douglas Park, Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Albany Park, Rogers Park, Lincolnwood, Skokie. . . All that is pretty much true, Sherman says, and so is his inclusion of certain shibboleths his Grandmother Bessie lived by: "You don't go on a bus. You don't stare at running water. And stay away from the zoo." She really, as in the play, had great contempt for Fiddler on the Roof. Was she herself actually the product of a shtetl? "We assume so," says her grandson. "We know she came to this country alone, at a young age — and never talked about it."
A showdown comes over the granddaughter's intention to marry a non-Jew. "Was I raised Jewish?" she demands of her unreligious mother.
"What else? Chinese?" the mother responds. "I believe in being Jewish."
James Sherman's wife, actress Linnea Todd, mother of their two young sons, is not Jewish. Well, Mr. Sherman . . . ?
"I was 38," he says. "My mother was so happy to see me marry somebody . . . " He is now thinking of writing a play to be called I Am My Own Mother.