It’s your classic “dear dairy” story.
Writer-performer Vivien Straus grew up on her family dairy farm overlooking the Tomales Bay in West Marin, and that’s also performing where she’s her new one-woman show about her mother, “After I’m Dead, You’ll Have to Feed Everyone : The Rollicking Tale of Ellen Straus, Dairy Godmother.”
Originally from Amsterdam, Ellen Straus came to the United States as a teenager fleeing the Holocaust. She married Bill Straus, a German-Jewish immigrant, and joined him on his dairy farm in Marshall. As efforts grew to develop West Marin, she became a powerful voice for environmentalism in the area, co-founding the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.
And yes, this is the same Straus family as the Straus Family Creamery, but that’s a separate business run by Vivien Straus’ brother. The Straus Home Ranch, where this show is being performed, is the family farm that she now manages, often used as a destination vacation and wedding venue. The performance space is a large and recently repaired 160-year-old barn.
The setting is lovely, though it gets cold outside at night and wearing layers is recommended. Early arrivers are welcome to look around and picnic, and a different food truck offers meals for purchase at each performance.
A longtime actor whose last solo show was “EiEi-OY! In Bed with the Farmer’s Daughter,” Straus frames this new show with her memories of taking care of her mother through Ellen’s cancer and eventual death 20 years ago.
Directed by Elly Lichenstein, the former artistic director of Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, it’s a well-paced, informal evening in an intimate conversational style. The set is simple and spare, backed by drawings of floating cartoon cows that we’re told were designed by Ellen.
Straus is an entertaining raconteur, embodying a dozen characters in the course of herstory in often hilarious mini portraits, many of them brief.
The story she tells is full of love, and also replete with humor. She talks about her parents where they’d like to be buried as if gauging how awkward it would be if they’d be expected to be buried with the people involved in choosing social plots.
Straus peppers the story with little bits of “cow wisdom,” in which she puts her hands on either side of her head to represent cow ears and rattles off some fact about bovine biology or behavior that’s in some way related to what’s going with her mother in the scene she was just recounting. Some of these asides are interesting, and they serve to lighten a tone already pretty well leavened by Straus’ many funny anecdotes, but most of these farmyard factoids intrude upon the story more than they add to it.
The nonlinear way she tells the story is totally engaging, if occasionally confusing when a story about her mother’s past appears to switch narrators midway through. This stream-of-consciousness-style of storytelling also lends itself to an illusion that we’ve heard more of the mother’s life story than we actually have, as the tidbits here and there create a patchwork portrait.
There are plenty of parts of Ellen’s story that we could stand to hear much more about, whether it’s her flight from Europe or her fight to keep West Marin green. We might also be curious to get a sense of Straus’ several siblings whom we only hear about in passing. But that might be a different story than the one she’s here to tell, and there’s only so much of a life that can be contained in one hour.
It’s all grounded in their relationship, as mother and daughter and also best friends, and that connection resonates throughout the piece more than anything else. It’s in the conversations with her mother that Straus recounts that the story most comes to life.
Some of that is in the substance of what they’re saying, but much more of it is in the way that they talk to each other. And it’s a testament to Straus’ skills as a storyteller that it really feels as if we can hear that nuance in exchanges of which we’re really only given tiny samples.
The love with which she tells the story almost conveys more than the actual words.
Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/shurwitt.
IF YOU GO
What: “After I’m Dead, You’ll Have to Feed Everyone”
Where: Straus Home Ranch, 22888 Highway 1, Marshall
When: Through Nov. 20; 7:30 pm Fridays; 2 pm weekends
Rating (out of five stars): ★★★