Touchy Subjects

“I was worried about vaginas,” an actress declares in Eve Ensler’s hit play, “The Vagina Monologues,” at the Canon Theatre. “I was worried about what we think about vaginas, and even more worried that we don’t think about them.”

Ensler was worried, too, which is why she wrote her blunt, funny, disturbing play based on interviews with more than 200 women.

The Obie-winning piece is not for the prudish. There are riffs on every known euphemism and nickname for vagina, including an obscene slur that begins with a “C.” (In Philadelphia, we’re told, the term is “a split knish.”) There are moans that top Meg Ryan’s faux-orgasm from “When Harry Met Sally …” Then there’s the word, vagina, itself.

“No matter how many times you say it, it doesn’t sound like a word you want to say,” one character notes.

“It sounds like a disease, or a surgical instrument. As in, nurse, pass me the vagina.”

Nevertheless, viewers crowd the Canon night after night to watch three barefoot actresses sit on stools and gab about… the V-word. In monologues, humorous to heart-wrenching, we meet a tax lawyer turned dominatrix, a Bosnian rape victim, an elderly Jew who hasn’t been “down there” since a humiliating date in high school. An uptight woman is liberated by Bob, an ordinary guy who turns out to be “a connoisseur of vaginas.” There’s a tirade against pelvic exams and a find-your-G-spot seminar: “I lost my clitoris! I shouldn’t have worn it swimming!”

For Ensler, the goal is to celebrate female sexuality, to end sexual violence and the shame women associate with their most private of parts. Comedy is her secret weapon. “I profoundly connect to the history of Jewish humor, of using laughter to survive pain,” says Ensler, who’s also written about homeless women and women in prison. “Humor has always saved my life. Without it, I’d be dead.”

While growing up in a well-to-do Jewish neighborhood in Scarsdale, N.Y., Ensler adored outrageous Jewish truth-sayers like Lenny Bruce because she wished someone would tell the truth about what was happening to her.The family’s large two-story home, her ballet and piano lessons were all “a terrible illusion,” she says. So was the myth that Jewish men don’t molest their children. Ensler’s late father, a food company executive, sexually and physically abused her from the time she was small. He beat her, whipped her, invaded her body, threw her across the room. Though the incest stopped when she was 10, the corporal abuse continued.

If Ensler’s suffering prepared her to write “The Vagina Monologues,” so did her Cherokee mother’s preoccupation with the Shoah. “It reminded her of the persecution of Native Americans,” explains Ensler, now 47. “My bedtime stories consisted of Holocaust stories and tales of Indian genocide. I think that’s why I’ve become so obsessed with people being erased, disenfranchised, destroyed.”

By the time Ensler was in high school, she was drinking heavily to numb the pain of her father’s abuse. After college, she wandered the country in an alcohol-induced haze. “I was in and out of the most bizarre situations,” she told The New York Times. “Getting into bar fights. Hanging out with the Mafia. When I saw ‘Looking for Mr. Goodbar,’ about a woman murdered by someone she meets in a singles bar, I felt, ‘Lucky her.'”

At age 24 or 25, Ensler hit bottom. “I was very close to dying,” she told The Journal, declining to provide details. “I realized that if I didn’t turn my life around, I was going to die.”

Writing plays was a crucial part of her recovery, including a no-nukes piece that was performed at rallies and in church basements. After Ensler married saloon owner Richard McDermott, she legally adopted his 19-year-old son, Dylan, now the star of TV’s “The Practice.” She was 26 at the time. Dylan, in turn, introduced mom to his acting teacher, Joanne Woodward, who went on to direct Ensler’s play, “The Depot.”

The writer was still relatively unknown, however, when a conversation with a friend inspired “The Vagina Monologues” in the 1990s. “We were discussing menopause, and she started talking about her vagina with such contempt,” recalls Ensler, now divorced and living with her longtime companion, an Israeli psychotherapist. “She referred to it as dried up, ugly, dead. I was really shocked. I thought, ‘My God, is this what women think about their vaginas?'”

Before long, the New York playwright was on the “vagina trail,” interviewing women of all ages, races and religions before debuting the “Monologues” as a solo show in 1996. Since then, it’s achieved a cult-like following, with performances from Zagreb to Jerusalem and readings for an annual stop-the-violence fundraiser, V-Day.

At the Canon, the piece is performed by a changing cast of three different actresses every three weeks, with Teri Hatcher, Sally Kellerman and Regina Taylor slated through Dec. 10.

Meanwhile, the author, like her play, is becoming something of a phenomenon. Hillary Rodham Clinton is writing the forward to a book version of her play “Necessary Targets,” about Bosnian refugees; celebrities like Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon and Whoopi Goldberg have read for V-Day; and several of Ensler’s works are being produced in the coming months, including a December run of “The Vagina Monologues” at Israel’s Habimah Theater.

While in the Middle East, Ensler says, she’ll meet with Jewish and Arabic women to talk about peace, about “how we can use the play to bring Israeli and Palestinian women together.”

For Ensler, the play has provided an inner peace of sorts. “I’m not angry at my father anymore. I’m not bitter. That’s over,” she says. “Instead, I feel completely and utterly committed to preventing this kind of violence from happening to anyone ever again.”

For tickets and information about the “The Vagina Monologues,” call (310) 859-2830. A portion of each full-price ticket benefits V-Day, to be held on Valentine’s Day 2001.