Sachi Parker brings "Lucky Me" to life in New Haven

Sachi Parker in "Lucky Me." Photo courtesy Joanna Keylock.

Throughout her 90-minute one-woman show, Shirley MacLaine's daughter Sachi Parker periodically looks at the audience and says, "That's the story," reminding us that much of we are hearing is — at best — subjective truth. And that's helpful advice, given that Ms. Parker was raised around the film industry, a profession not known for its connection with reality. Based on her recent bestselling memoir, "Lucky Me," written with Frederick Stroppel, the show runs through this weekend at the Off-Broadway Theater in New Haven.

"Story" really is of the essence here: the stories that Parker was told as a child, the stories she told herself, and the stories she tells us, the audience. In this delightful, minimalist production, those stories are front and center, and Parker tells them with a charming, animated honesty.

These stories all pose puzzling questions: Was Parker truly shipped across the Pacific to live with her father in Tokyo because the "Mob" had threatened to kidnap her? Did guardian Shinto kami really find her retainer? Were Canadian work rules the reason she didn't get a movie role with her mother? And, of course, did Shirley MacLaine really believe her father was a clone?

Bringing the audience along on this ride would be a challenge for any performer, but Parker delivers, in a performance with amazing range and energy. She is at once a confident, skilled actress and the painfully vulnerable child inside those stories, growing up amid a thicket of fabulation and multiple agendas. But this is not a bitter reminiscence; honest and unflinching, yes, but Parker does not look back with anger, rather, ultimately with a seasoned wisdom. We see, through the stories, a real person and their real life.

And that, to me, is the show's strength: it is not, fundamentally, a tell-all about how Parker grew up with a crazy mom and a con-man father; rather, it's about the stories we all tell ourselves in order to survive. Some are helpful and happy, like MacLaine snuggling with her young daughter during thunderstorms and concocting fairytales about "Princess Lightning." Some are charming, like the lucky seven pairs of underwear Parker's Japanese governess made her wear. Some are moments of grace, like a frightened adolescent evening in Trieste, being walked back to a hotel by a concerned prostitute. Some literally shake the foundations of remembered life, like unravelling her "true" father's deception in a lockbox of telegrams sent from his government mission in the Pleiades. And some are moments of bleak desperation, like the now-grown Parker pitching her mother the story of a possible future, trying to connect in a drunken, snow-bound evening in Santa Fe. The details may be extreme, but, as in the best theatre, each story unpacks to reveal kernels of truth. And it is Parker's performance that drives that recognition.

Parker's co-author, Stroppel, has done a thoughtful job selecting and shaping the material from the book. I deliberately didn't read it until after seeing the show, and found that Stroppel did an excellent job at converting "memoir" to theatrical experience (and for those who may have already read it, he's made cuts that bring the show into "okay for teen" territory).

Director Douglas Moser has done an outstanding job at shaping Parker's monologue into a true performance. With a minimalist set — two chairs, a rug, a shoji screen and a couple of benches — Moser has given Parker plenty of room to bring each story to life with well-paced action that is surprising and fresh, but never gimmicky. Add a handful of props: a few hats, a frighteningly evocative wig, ski goggles, and a memorable pair of pumps, and watch Parker deliver hard lessons and deep truths.

The production design, by Andrew Rubenoff, packs enormous sophistication into a typical "black cube" performance space. Rubenoff's skill is evident in the set, which is evocative of Parker's Japanese upbringing without being overly mimetic, the lighting design (don't think I've ever seen such a simple plot used to such powerful effect — and the red-carpet flash is a touch of brilliance), and the subtle, spot-on sound design which reinforces without calling attention to itself.

In the audience Q&A after the show last Sunday, producer Joanna Keylock said that they are aiming to take this to New York, and I hope that happens. There is some very good theater here, and it is not because of Shirley MacLaine. Oh, sure, that may be why people will come, but once they see this show, they'll understand something far more profound: how lucky we all are to have the stories we tell.

"Lucky Me" is at the Off-Broadway Theater, 41 Broadway in New Haven, Saturday June 8 at 8pm and Sunday June 9 at 3pm. Tickets are $30 at the door with reservations available by e-mail at Pro tip: Set your GPS for Broadway, park in the public lot in the middle of the street, enter the Yale campus between the bookstore and the Apple store, and follow the right-hand path to get to the theatre.

Full disclosure: I have previously worked with Doug Moser in non-theatrical contexts, but I did not receive free tickets nor anything of value in exchange for this review.