Stuff: one man’s show about his family

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Michael Toscano

John Feffer’s one-man play, Stuff, explores both the physical things and emotional baggage his mother left behind after her death. During the show, Feffer reads from her diaries, portraying her and other characters, and passes some of her possessions around the audience.
Photo courtesy of John Feffer

“At 65, I realize that I made some terrible choices, none of them for me.”

From the diary of Edith Feffer, October 1988

That excerpt from the long-secret journals of playwright John Feffer’s mother is at the heart of his idiosyncratic, but sometimes absorbing, play titledStuff.It returns to the area in a limited run this month at Studio 1469 in D.C.’s Columbia Heights.

Stuff is a one-person show performed by the playwright, who combines writing and performing with his day job as a foreign policy analyst for a Washington think tank. Well, it should actually be said it’s a play performed by one person, but visited by several characters and with the vibrant presence of his late mom floating through it.

Feffer, 52, is telling her story based on the way she apparently saw herself: a woman who struggled to assert her own identity but ultimately failed. And he has chosen the subject of objects, or “stuff,” as his vehicle to get us there.

“Stuff,” he said during a wide-ranging conversation, “created a trail that led to her secrets. And her diaries were part of the stuff.”

Emotional and physical “stuff”

“Your parents accumulate all these things,” he continued. “When they pass away, it’s like a tsunami. It’s all this stuff and you have to deal with it. It has so much emotional value to it, so much personal baggage, not only for your parents but for you as well. A lot of the stuff I grew up with. Furniture, documents, paintings, all sorts of stuff.”

Dealing with his mother’s belongings after she passed was the catalyst for emotional discovery, negotiation, thoughtful consideration and revelation. Feffer found diaries Edith began writing as an older woman, frustrated that the life she ended up having did not have space in it for the life as a published writer she envisioned.

The Feffers seemed to be an intellectually engaged family, with a worldly outlook. For instance, Feffer discovered stamp collecting as a boy; those little objects, he says, helped sparked his interest in the world. Travel and living overseas required by his profession made faraway places real. He no longer needed the stamps.

Some things Feffer is still drawn to, such as books. The knowledge in them has always represented lifelong possibilities of what he might become, and those ambitions are bound up in his personal identify. Such is the stuff of dreams.

The play, which debuted at the 2015 Capital Fringe Festival, has 18 thematically segmented scenes. Scene transitions are accompanied by tidbits of facts projected onto a large screen. (Did you know the average American home now contains 300,000 separate objects?)

The show has an unusual multi-media facet. Objects from Feffer’s home are passed around, and some of the stuff is allowed to be taken away by audience members. But won’t that limit the number of future performances? Not to worry, he says; he still has a basement full of “stuff.”

Reprising his mother

We meet Feffer at the top of the play in the role of Edith. As a photo of her at tea fills the screen behind him, the slender writer is a stooped, rather frail figure. A hat with a wide brim and a long necklace with chunky baubles are his only concessions to costume.

As Edith fusses about who will sit where at tea, Feffer’s recorded voice, as himself, engages in conversation with her. The disembodied voice seems stiff and formal, especially compared to the animated elderly woman he portrays live. But when Feffer transitions back to himself as a monologist and story-teller, he is more at ease and seemingly spontaneous.

And for much of the show’s 75 minutes or so, Feffer’s earnest presence fills the space as a man recounting old, familiar stories rather than as someone reciting history.

Some of the stories are funny, yet poignant. Edith insists that John take her prized wooden sideboard. He’s less than thrilled with the prospect, knowing the piece is too massive for his dining room.

“I want it to stay in the family,” she insists. He points out she bought it in 1967, and it’s hardly a collector’s item. But stuff has its own power, and the thing is now wedged into his home.

A connection between the influence of objects with the regrets of his mother sometimes seems a bit contrived. But that doesn’t mean the disparate themes are not individually interesting. For example, a discussion about what to do with a lacquer box as Feffer and his wife closed down a home in Japan opens up whole rivers and tributaries of contemplation and reflection.

Edith’s diaries ultimately unearthed startling revelations. They, along with love letters written home to Edith by her faraway husband during World War II, changed Feffer’s perceptions of family history (spoilers will not be divulged in this space).

“Writing was her aspiration, and it was basically submerged in order to raise a family, and to help my father achieve his career objectives,” Feffer explained.

But it proved difficult to get things published, so Feffer says she began writing diaries, letting loose decades of pent-up feelings.

“Into those diaries, she poured all of her frustrations and disappointments, and other things, as well. But what it turned out to be for her children was a kind of secret history, because my mother put into her diaries everything she didn’t tell us.”

Perhaps the most tangible link between “stuff” and Edith’s discontent is the fact that she wanted many of her household objects to live on in the family. Much of it has.

She also wanted to be someone whose writing would achieve a kind of immortality by being published. That is something she failed to accomplish.

But Feffer has given his mother a gift: for a time, at least, some things she wrote hold an audience’s attention.

 Stuff will be performed at Studio 1469, located at the rear of 1469 Harvard St. NW in Washington, D.C., in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

Onstage March 3 to 19

Performance dates: Thursday and Friday, March 3 and 4; Thursday, March 10; Sunday, March 13; Thursday, March 17; and Saturday, March 19. All performances are at 8 p.m.

All tickets are $20 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com (event 2500185) or at the door. For more information about the play, visit www.johnfeffer.com/stuff.

Studio 1469 is located two blocks from the Columbia Heights Metro station. There is no on-site parking available. Enter via the alley off 15th Street, between Harvard Street and Columbia Road.

For more information about the theater, email info@studio1469.com or call (202) 518-0804.