Here she comes, Miss America, Bess Myerson, the first and still only Jewish title holder. Her lovely face gazes out over the audience. And here’s her crown, and her throne…and her disembodied voice in a series of hectoring phone calls to her only child.
In “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter – Bess Myerson and Me,” Myerson overpowers the stage, despite the actual human presence of her daughter, Barra Grant. It’s an apt representation of their relationship. Even the cover of the program features Myerson’s name but not the playwright/performer’s.
Grant presumably wrote and performs this show to exorcise the demon. She’s spent a lifetime trying to build a healthy identity, while also being a good daughter to a toxic mother. Only when Myerson died in 2014 could her daughter get any relief, but Grant seems to have spent that time creating and reworking this show. Even after death, her mother’s presence continues to fill a room.
There’s a tragic air to this one-woman show. Barra works the stage, her slender, almost frail body moving and sometimes dancing across every inch as she relives painful moments from her past with her brutally insensitive and narcissistic mother. Myerson valued looks and money above all and took her daughter’s perceived imperfections as a personal insult. She made her disappointment keenly known, as indicated in the onstage phone calls, which ring oh so true. Grant tells us, “She wanted me to be pretty so she could show me off,” then describes how she would eat a bag of candy.
It’s therefore clear the exorcism has not been effective. Grant starkly Illustrates the damage a bad parent can do. The show is ostensibly about the daughter, but we get a full bio of the mother’s life, from her poor upbringing in the Bronx, the daughter of Russian immigrants, to her pageant success in 1945, two disastrous marriages, a television game show career that included nine years on I’ve Got a Secret, two stints as a Commissioner of New York City, to a humiliating scandal involving a much younger man, years of decline and finally death at age 90. Whew!
The ending is designed to feel triumphant, as Grant, mother-free, goes on to live her own life. Yet here she is, talking about her mother, obsessed with the deathbed secrets revealed and retained.
Maybe one generation keep secrets and the next generation tells them, releasing the pressure and breaking the curse of secrets that leave family asking, Why didn’t she think she could tell us that? In Myerson’s case, the secrets were big, the pressure intense and the ending as cruel as the long life.
This is the Ugly Daughter’s third run and third theater. It’s a tour de force for Grant, whose passion and pathos are evident throughout. And the technical side of things is masterful, including direction by Eve Brandstein, scenic design by Elisa Schaefer, lighting by Ian James, projections and sound design by Tom Jones, original music by Mark Adler, and the pitch-perfect voice of Myerson, Monica Piper.
Miss America’s Ugly Daughter is playing at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street in Santa Monica, through August 4. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 4:00pm. Tickets are $40, $20 for seniors. Parking is $6 in the adjacent lot. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (323) 285-2078 or visit MissAmericasUglyDaughter.com.