Lucia Berlin’s Emotional Baggage Was Not Light

Word for Word Theater retells the boozy stories in Berlin's posthumous, semi-autobiographical A Manual for Cleaning Women, with mixed results.

Every weekday, my mother woke up coughing a few minutes before noon, right before All My Children started. First, she’d put on her frayed pink bathrobe and walk to the bathroom sink. There she’d pop Alka-Seltzer tablets into a plastic tumbler, drinking the fizzy water. After that, she’d pour herself a tall glass of chocolate milk, light a Marlboro cigarette, and settle back into bed to watch the affairs of fictional characters run amok in Pine Valley. The routine changed on the weekends in one respect only — then, she watched sports instead of soaps.  

This was an everyday occurrence, the ritual cure for her hangovers. Before she died of liver failure a decade ago, she hadn’t admitted or acknowledged that she was an alcoholic. Her life, spent mostly indoors and in front of that damn television, baffled me. But writers like Jean Rhys, Mary Karr, and, much later, Lucia Berlin (1936-2004), helped me imagine the troubled states of mind my mother could never contend with, let alone express. Rhys, Karr, and Berlin suffered sustained bouts of alcoholism themselves. But they also transformed their particular experiences with the disease into art.

Norman Gee, Jeri Lynn Cohen. “The dark night of the soul.” Video Art: Naomie Kremer. Word for Word’s Lucia Berlin: Stories; photo credit, Julie Schuchard

In Lucia Berlin: Stories, Z Space and Word for Word have adapted five of Berlin’s short stories for the stage. Taken from her posthumously published collection of selected stories A Manual for Cleaning Women, collectively the five stories form a fictionalized autobiography covering the years when the author lived in the Bay Area. When I first read the book in 2016, I imagined two things. First, that the female narrator’s voice could have been my mother’s. And second, I wished Lucia Berlin, who eventually recovered from her alcoholism, could have been my mother. That was the power of her literary voice. She didn’t ask for pity from the reader, but in the writing, in the way that she told her stories, Berlin elicited pity and understanding from, what felt like, such an intimate place.  

The way that I had heard and understood the short stories in my head didn’t quite match up with the externalized voice of the theatrical Berlin I watched and listened to on stage. For one thing, the supporting characters were invariably offered up as comic relief. I could understand the impetus behind that choice, to make the starkness of a detox scene easier to take. But watching a real alcoholic drink, go through detox, and relapse isn’t easy to take. Why should it then be easier to see that cycle played out on stage? With that qualifier in place, Word for Word’s production is a well-intentioned and stylized introduction to Berlin’s messy world, especially for anyone who might react to the content with less or even lighter emotional baggage.

Lucia Berlin: Stories is also determined to entertain the audience. A jazz score by Marcus Shelby accompanies the choreographed movements of a busy Greek chorus that’s constantly in motion. Aesthetically, both evoke the howling Beat Generation of the 1950s — even though the stories themselves are set later in the 1970s and ’80s. But you can still picture the characters listening to the music on jukeboxes in bars. It could also be the soundtrack to the worst parts of Lucia Berlin’s tumultuous life, playing sadly on her car radio as the vehicle is towed away, or uproariously in the background at parties until the music and the drinking end in yet another terrible blackout.  

Lucia Berlin: Stories, Through March 11, at Z Space, 470 Florida St., $20-$50; 415-626-0453 or

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