By Will Broaddus
---- — ome solo performers just play themselves. But in “Firecracker Bye Bye,” his one-man show at Salem Theatre Company, Seth Lepore brings a whole cast of characters to life.
“I’m going back and forth between telling the audience stories of what happened, and then playing my father, my grandmother, myself, my wife and my aunt,” said Lepore, who is staging his work tonight, tomorrow and Saturday night.
The play centers on his grandmother, Nonie — the “firecracker” in the play’s title — who died in April 2012 at age 95 and to whom he is affectionately saying “bye.”
“She was the matriarch of the family, she was the center of everyone’s universe,” Lepore said.
She also had a unique and vivid personality, which was evident in almost everything she said and did.
“She didn’t edit a word. She said whatever was on her mind,” Lepore said. “Her comedic timing was brilliant, although she wasn’t trying to be funny.”
The play started as a memoir, but Lepore found himself using the material on stage at theater festivals. He turned it into a full-length performance after working with director Linda McInerney.
There are scenes where he is talking to his grandmother or parents on the phone, which recall times when he lived in San Francisco or Colorado.
In other scenes, when they are together, Nonie enjoys telling people what she thinks about how they look.
“There was always something we were wearing — or our hair or face — was off,” Lepore said. “She was commenting on our physical appearance all the time. I’m a punk rock kid, so I always looked weird, so I would make it worse to mess with her.”
Lepore’s wife, Sharon Esdale, tended to take Nonie’s criticisms and suggestions more seriously.
“There’s a whole scene with Sharon, about how she should wear makeup, and I’m stuck with them in this situation,” Lepore said.
That exchange is actually shorter in the play than it was in real life, he said, where Nonie’s suggestions dragged on for 10 minutes.
Her eccentric behavior extended to the swears she invented with her sister — they were two of 11 children — and to things she enjoyed knitting from yarn.
“There’s a lot of yarn in the show,” Lepore said. “She would buy yarn on sale — bottom of the barrel, canary yellow — and make sweaters. You do not want to wear these things in public.
“I wore a lot of her stuff. I kind of liked what she did, but I also didn’t at the same time. She also made slippers and toks.”
The latter is a name for a kind of hat which Lepore has only heard in the part of Rhode Island where he grew up.
“It’s more of an outside-suburban-Providence term,” he said. “I’ve met people from Canada who call them tooks.”
Regional expressions and traditions intrigue Lepore, who now lives in Western Massachusetts, almost as much as his grandmother’s personal quirks.
“The show is very Rhode Island,” he said. “It’s a really funny show that shows aspects of how a family works, especially Italian-American aspects, which I think translates to most people.
“I refer to myself as a socio-theater investigator, because I’m very interested in anthropology and society, how people act and gesture and all of that, how groups think.”
Spending time out west helped Lepore contrast the region he shared with Nonie, which she rarely left, with other cultures.
“In California, you can become best friends with somebody at a party,” he said. “In New England it can take five years before you shake hands with somebody.”
In addition to exploring regional traits, Lepore’s works have also focused on particular worlds that are present throughout American culture.
“I have a trilogy of shows on the underbelly of the self-help movement,” he said. “It is a combination of monologue, storytelling and character driven scenes.”
Theater purists have criticized the way Lepore mixes modes of presentation, but he finds that it doesn’t trouble audiences.
“I do this thing where I put the fourth wall up and they’re watching a scene,” he said. “Then I break it and start talking to the audience. It doesn’t confuse the audience at all, but some people have this idea that theater should be one thing.”
“Firecracker Bye Bye” differs from some of Lepore’s other shows in its liberal use of props, which Lepore and his director both felt were important.
“I tend to be a person who just wears black and has a chair and does everything physically,” he said. “As a solo performer I’m used to switching back and forth in my body, facial expression and voice.
“Because my grandmother made all this stuff, I’m using props for the first time in years, and I had to get used to that.”
The vivid colors Nonie used in the things she knitted convey her volatile nature, and help Lepore tell the story.
“She did not fear gaudy, she embraced it,” he said.
The material in “Firecracker Bye Bye” is still evolving, and Lepore expects to be doing the show on a long-term basis.
“I call it a tear-jerker comedy,” he said. “A lot of people come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I felt like I got to know Nonie,’ which is great, because that’s what I want.”
If you go What: "Firecracker Bye Bye" by Seth Lepore When: Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 2 to 4, at 7:30 p.m. Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem, Mass. Information: Tickets are $20 at the door, $17 in advance online at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111.