‘Love, Loss and What I Wore’ playing at Sonoma Community Center

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“Theater is storytelling,” says director Libby Oberlin, describing the conspicuously non-theatrical approach she’s taken to staging Sonoma Arts Live’s latest production, “Love, Loss and What I Wore.”

“So the way we’re presenting it,” she says, “is a celebration of the art and tradition of on-stage storytelling.”

Written by the sister-sister team of Norah Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”) and Delia Ephron, the play was a huge hit off-Broadway in 2009, where it became the second longest running show in the history of New York’s Westside Theater.

“In the off-Broadway run,” says Oberlin, “five actresses stood at music stands, with their scripts, and took turns telling the stories of different women, and the memories that came from various pieces of clothing. You wouldn’t think that would work, as a theater piece, but when you have the right five actresses, playing characters that are big and bold, that’s all you need.”

After initially considering taking a more traditional approach to staging the show, which is basically a series of short vignettes and inner monologues, Oberlin eventually decided to stick with the less-is-more “in concert” style that proved so popular in New York, though with a few additional twists.

“It was a bit of a learning curve to get used to the ‘staged reading’ aspect of the production,” she admits, “but I’m really excited with how it’s turned out. When the audience arrives, the curtain is already open, they’ll see the music stands, they’ll see the various props and clothing pieces hanging there waiting. They’ll see instantly what it is that’s going to happen.”

Advance audiences, she says, have already been taken with the sheer, immediate honesty and simplicity of the show, which ends up putting the Ephron sisters’ words, and the performances of the actresses, up front.

“There are many moments when the actresses step away from their music stands,” Oberlin says. “Some moments are fully memorized, so we could do actual blocking and stylized movement. It’s very organic and wonderful, the way it all works.”

Still, she does realize that for audiences accustomed to seeing actors strutting about reciting lines, it will take a moment of adjustment.

“There’s no hiding that this is something different, something special,” she says. “And I think people will absolutely embrace what we’re doing.”

Apparently they already are. Fueled by strong advance word, the opening night of the show – presented at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center – is already sold out, and tickets for the rest of the two-weekend run are selling well.

Oberlin admits she’d never heard of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” until Jaime Love, the executive artistic director of Sonoma Arts Live, gave her the script. “I read it and thought it was absolutely hilarious, and clever, and also deeply touching,” says Oberlin.

Though the play has no plot, to speak of, there is the hint of a dramatic arc to the show, as an undercurrent of warm humor supports a sense of rising drama, while various characters, all female — inspired by the bestselling memoir of the same name by fashion writer Ilene “Gingy” Beckerman – allow various items of clothing to conjure up a lifetime of memories.

“One woman talks about the dress she was wearing when she told her husband she was no longer in love with him,” Obelin describes. “There are many, many moments like that, sentimental moments from their lives, memories that were highlighted by whatever they wore at the time.”

Though the stories are all from the perspective of women, Oberlin says the men who’ve seen it have been just as moved, to tears and to laughter.

“It’s not just women who are sometimes obsessed with clothes,” she says. “Men remember the shirt they thought they lost, the shirt they kept for years because of something that happened to them when they were wearing it. They remember how they felt when they found it again. We all have those memories about our clothes. Clothes are like a living photo album from throughout our lives, and that goes for women and for men.”

To set the proper tone, the company has transformed the theater into a kind of fashion museum, assuring that the audience will be met with a display of clothes, hats, shoes and accessories from the moment they step through the door.

“The big question now,” Oberlin says with a laugh, “is what am I going to wear on opening night? I’d definitely better look good for this one.”

“Love, Loss and What I Wore” runs Thursday to Saturday, Jan. 15 to 24. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. (note earlier time), except Sundays, when the show starts at 2 p.m. Sonoma Community Center at 276 E. Napa St. Tickets are $15 - $40. Available or by phone at 800-838-3006

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