November 19, 2019

‘Ripe’: What Middle Age Looks Like, If You’re Lucky

On a brilliant Sunday afternoon in September, actress-comedian Wendy Hammers bounded onto the stage at the American Jewish University’s Shapiro Hall, barefoot and dancing.

Hammers has big hair, a big smile, big cheekbones — and big energy. She also has large thighs and an ample rear, characteristics you can’t help noticing when a person is swinging her hips before you onstage, clad in nothing but a body-hugging, stretchy jumpsuit. Her body, which she uses to great comedic affect in her hourlong, one-woman show, “Ripe,” is a big part of the story.

“In 2002, I realized that my body was perfect,” Hammers announced at the start. The audience — mostly 50-plus women, many of whom knew Hammers and one another — laughed. Then, almost as one, we leaned forward, waiting for the explanation.

Hammers came to this conclusion, she explains, after her best friend, a fellow comedian, died of cancer. Hammers suddenly realized how perfect her body was, with its fully functioning organs, its perfect blood-cell count and its “perfect, ample ass” as Hammers said, turning her back to the crowd, leaning over and touching her toes to put it directly in our view. She delivered the next part of the show from this position, talking about her rear end. She pronounced herself the Jewish J-Lo, “Jew-Lo,” then, speaking from the point of view of her bottom, complained about having been forced into a thong in January and not having seen it since.

The audience laughed, completely onboard with her combination of jokes, super-effective physical humor and personal revelation. Throughout the course of “Ripe” (her third one-woman show), Hammers shared an overview of her adulthood: She married, had a son, divorced, dated, “shtupped” the FedEx guy and remarried.

Hammers is a vibrant, funny, immediately likable performer who has appeared on popular shows including “Mad About You,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” as well as at stand-up comedy venues around the country. But in our current culture and at this moment, here in L.A., it’s safe to assume many women in the audience would need to spend some serious time repeating self-affirmations in the mirror to feel comfortable, let alone physically “perfect,” in a skintight jumpsuit with those thighs.

In one particularly touching segment, Hammer talked about watching her son grow from toddler to teenager. She crouched slightly to pantomime holding his little-boy hand, then she raised her arm as she talked about him growing up, as a mother would to clasp the hand of an ever-older son. Finally, he’s so tall, he’s out of reach. She opened her hand as if letting him fly away. He’s particularly tall, it turns out. “He’s so tall. My son is taller than he was when I started this sentence,” she said.

She donned a knitted cap, sweatshirt and ear buds to embody her sulky teenage son. But this is a Westside family and he’s a “suburban gangsta.” She mimicked an angsty Westside teen, trying to look tough at a place like Kreation Organic Kafé or maybe Gjelina: “Yo, yo, yo! Avocado toast, yo.”

“While “Ripe” is billed as a show about how Hammers realized at middle age she needed to make massive changes in her life, it’s more of a chronology of how she increasingly came to terms with her life − as it is.”

While “Ripe” is billed as a show about how Hammers realized at middle age she needed to make massive changes in her life, it’s more of a chronology of how she increasingly came to terms with her life — as it is. She decided to let her hair go gray, rather than continue to dye it brown. She suggests that if you’re going to lie about your age, “Lie up.” People might say you look good for 58, but if you tell them you’re 78, they’ll think you look great.

Hammers makes being 58 look pretty great. In the show, she did a cartwheel and a split pretty easily. She’s very comfortable in her body and that alone was encouraging to watch. At one point, audience members got up to dance along with her to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

Fully accepting her body didn’t start and stop at her friend’s death. Hammers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest types of cancer, a little more than four years ago. She did 12 rounds of chemo and the very tricky Whipple procedure, a surgery that removes part of the pancreas and nearby organs. She also did all the “woo-woo stuff.” During the ordeal, she lost a huge amount of weight. One thing she learned from this? That having a “bony ass is overrated” and very uncomfortable.

She explained her survival, in part, by saying she knew she lacked the bandwidth to really consider both dying and getting well. She decided to just pick getting well. Even for those of us not facing a life-threatening diagnosis, the idea of harnessing our limited attention and energy toward the positive felt hopeful and was a reminder of our ability to make choices about our attitude and attention.

She happily regained all her weight — “my tush, my breasts, my hair.” After hearing about her friend’s cancer and her own, I saw her bodacious body as an indisputable testament to vitality, the type of figure all of us should be so lucky to have, and keep, well into our 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond.

In a Q&A after, Hammers explained she constructed the show by work-shopping four eight-minute stories, then connecting them. The themes of self-acceptance, love and optimism carry through the performance, but I wished for a slightly tighter frame around the stories and a stronger connective tissue. Still, the audience responded to her humor and her message.

At the end of the Q&A, Hammers said, “My dream is that when you go home, you will be kinder to yourself.” This sendoff was in line with the spirit of her show and felt like a personal invitation to all of us to join her in embracing the now. n

Wendy Hammers will be appearing at the Santa Monica Playhouse on Oct. 22. Click here for more information. She’s also performing at “Belly Laughs,” a comedy fundraiser for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, at Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 14. Tickets can be purchased here.

Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches From Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well.”