Women and their clothes is a big subject. "Women have such a powerful connection to their clothes," Delia Ephron says. "For every big, emotional experience of your life, you identify in some way with clothing. It's like a trigger for emotional memories. We use the clothes we wore as a way into our personal stories."
Ephron and her sister, Nora Ephron, have taken this idea and turned it into a hit play, Love, Loss and What I Wore, which comes to Tampa next week. Performed by a cast of five women, including Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H), and directed by Karen Carpenter, it is simply staged as a series of pieces, which the Ephrons have described as "The Vagina Monologues but without the vaginas."
"And then the Vagina Monologues people got mad at us and said we couldn't, but we kept doing it," Delia says, speaking by phone from New York. "I'm sure they're still really mad at us."
What I Wore has been running off Broadway in New York for more than two years, featuring a host of stars in short stints, including Tyne Daley, Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Lynch, Rhea Perlman, Mary Louise Wilson, Fran Drescher, Brooke Shields and others. There have been productions in Paris, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Manila.
"We never expected all this," Delia says. "We were hoping for three months. You never know which things you're going to write are going to have resonance."
The Ephrons are kind of literary royalty, coming from a family of writers; their parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, were Hollywood screenwriters, and their two other sisters, Hallie and Amy, are also writers. Nora and Delia are frequent collaborators, having worked together on screenplays for such movies as You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, Hanging Up and Michael.
Nora, 70, is the most famous of the Ephrons for her directing (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Julie & Julia) and her journalism in best-selling collections of essays, such as Crazy Salad and I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Delia, 67, has written several children's books, including How to Eat Like a Child: And Other Lessons in Not Being a Grown-up and The Girl with the Mermaid Hair. She has a novel, The Lion Is In, coming out in spring.
The sisters based their play on a 1995 memoir by Ilene Beckerman, Love, Loss and What I Wore. "Nora sort of spotted it in when it was in galleys," Delia says. "We realized it had such a powerful emotional reaction for the reader that if you could capture that feeling in the theater, the audience would really connect, because their own lives would start flooding back."
To gather ideas for the play, the Ephrons e-mailed their girlfriends. "Tell us your stories about your bras, your prom dresses, your Brownie uniforms . . . everything," Delia recalls asking.
Some of the stories are poignant, such as one from Rosie O'Donnell about the bathrobe her mother wore and how it symbolized her death at 39.
"There's one particular story based on (TV producer) Geralyn Lucas' experience with breast cancer," Delia says. "When I interviewed her to create a piece around it, she remembered every single thing that she wore from the moment she heard the news through her recovery."
Many of the stories connect to mothers. "Our mother used to say, 'Never wear a red coat,' and I have no idea why," Delia says. "She also used to say never wear white after Labor Day, or plaids and stripes don't go together. There were all these rules. When you become a teenager, the way you differentiate yourself from your mother is by dressing in a way that absolutely drives her insane. A lot of the stories about clothes are also about moms."
Other stories include the influence of Madonna ("Anyone under 40 who hasn't dressed as Madonna is either lying or Amish") and the problem of the purse. "It's about your purse as the nightmare of your life," Delia says. "Your purse contains the debris of a lifetime. It's a whole riff on how much, basically, Nora hates her purse and everything that's in it."
Forty years ago, Nora wrote a classic essay for Esquire, "A Few Words About Breasts," and What I Wore revisits the theme. "There's a story about buying your first bra and what a nightmare that is," Delia says. "It's a very funny piece about being trapped in a dressing room with an intimidating bra saleswoman."
The Ephrons are sophisticated women, but Delia insists their play is not about fashion. "Nora and I have no interest in fashion and have never understood it," Delia says. "This is not about Vogue or stuff like that."
As for their own wardrobes, the sisters are proponents of basic black. "Nora and I both wear almost exclusively black," Delia says. "We just figured out that it simplified everything about 10 years ago, and we never veer from it."
Asked what piece of clothing she could not do without, Delia says, "My black turtleneck sweater. And my black denim pants. I have two pair and I literally rotate them back and forth every single day. They fit perfectly and I love them."
But then there's that raspberry sweater. "My favorite thing in the world is my raspberry sweater that I wore when I met my husband," Delia says. "By accident, it almost caught on fire. Well, the menu caught on fire, and my sleeve almost caught on fire too when we were out to dinner, the night we fell in love. That's when I was younger and wearing colors like raspberry. I'm always looking for it because of that night."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.