Within the first moments of the comedy/drama "Sunset Park," I wanted to get to know Sheila Oaks, who plays widowed mother
Evelyn Horowitz two nights a week at the Zephyr Theatre. Something about Oaks' authentic, sensitive portrayal of a 70-something New York Jewish woman made me curious.
It turns out that Oaks also is a hard-working speech pathologist. And, most inspiring, she's a 68-year-old who continues to discover herself as a professional, a woman, and a human being.
Oaks grew up in Brooklyn and inherited a passion for singing and the theater from her parents: "My father took me regularly to see theater and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for classes. My mother loved to sing, and we used to sing all the Broadway show tunes together."
At 8 years old, Oaks first appeared on stage in a talent show, where she sang "Swanee River" in blackface. She cringes at the political incorrectness, but it was the beginning of a love affair with performing. Oaks pursued her acting while also getting a psychology degree at University of Pennsylvania and a master's in speech pathology at Tulane. Her acting roles have included television, feature films and numerous stage productions on both coasts.
When I asked Oaks about playing Jewish roles, such as the one in "Sunset Park," she recalled that her parents had explained the difficulties they sometimes faced as Jews. Her father was a chemist who often couldn't get hired because he was a Jew, and her mother constantly warned her children that they, too, might be treated unfairly.
"My mother was petrified of being Jewish," Oaks recalls. "I heard all these stories and cautions from her, and I guess I took it to heart and adopted some of her fears."
Oaks occasionally found herself worrying about how audiences would judge her for being Jewish or playing a Jewish character--which she did often in productions such as "Enter Laughing" or "Jake's Women."
"I think at times I held myself back because I didn't want the audience to be put off. You know, people make comments about a woman being a 'Jewish princess' or about someone behaving 'too Jewish,' like it was something negative."
None of this carried over in her work as a speech pathologist.
"Speech therapy isn't concerned with anyone's religion or color," she says. "It's a very universal experience when someone stutters, or when someone has had a stroke. They all face the same challenges and those who work with them are very accepting."
Oaks has managed to marry her passions for theatre and therapy.
"I love Viola Spolin's theater games and I've discovered they have great value in my speech therapy work," she says. "When I've used some games with stroke patients with aphasia, words would pop out that they couldn't express through traditional approaches. And when I had stutterers do improvisation games, they could focus on a partner and stop judging themselves."
Oaks works at The Help Group, treating children with autism spectrum disorders, and for Partners, Jewish Family Service's Adult Day Treatment on Santa Monica Boulevard, with seniors dealing with strokes, cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.
And yet, she still finds time for her acting.
"Sunset Park" director Mark Taylor remembers Oaks coming in to audition for the Inkwell Theater production.
"We knew she was right for the part of Evelyn when she walked in the door," Taylor said. "Her mannerisms, her vulnerability, her voice were all perfect."
The show -- which because of double casting has six senior citizens playing three roles -- began its second run in Los Angeles Oct. 14. During the summer, before the show reopened, Oaks found an old tape of her mother and herself singing.
"I thought of my mother in creating my role during the first run, trying to picture her and remember her," Oaks said. "But I hadn't actually heard my mother's voice in 17 years. Hearing her voice evoked memories, like a Proustian thing when a smell can trigger old experiences. This truly impacted my performance as Evelyn. It gave my acting more colors."
"I can just hear my mother: 'Oh, so you think what I say is funny? You're going to try to imitate me?'" she continued. "I said to her once that she was a Neil Simon character, and she said, 'You're making fun of me!' I said, 'No! Mother you are a gem!'"
And how does she feel, this time, playing a New York Jewish woman?
"I've grown so much in this role, in not holding back in fear of being judged by audience. It's really a universal character, with relationships and feelings that any woman could feel. But I'm so proud to portray it through a Jewish persona. I'm bringing my own ethnicity to the part; it's truly allowing me to honor my Jewish roots."
"Sunset Park" by Marley Sims and Elliot Shoenman has been extended until Dec. 4. 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.inkwelltheater.com.