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THEATER

A Bit of Joy and Luck

Lauren Tom is finding her own path to enlightenment--with her Chinese grandmother as a guide.

November 24, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Actress Lauren Tom cuts a stylishly petite figure in her clingy, all-black outfit, as she sits perched on an office couch, chatting effervescently about her work and more while on a break from rehearsals for "Ikebana," which opens at East West Players today.

She's got the energetic manner of a woman who can schmooze her way through an industry cocktail party, no problem. Tom also has an easy laugh--but it's just a bit too easy, betraying a mild case of the jitters just beneath the composed veneer.

Tom may look the part of the rising talent that she is, but she's not so self-assured.

"I was desperate from the start," says the 31-year-old, with a quick giggle at her own expense. "From the time I was little, I always felt like an outsider. I always felt nervous and uncomfortable with myself."

Ever on the prowl for new techniques and ideas that might help her feel more at ease, she meditates daily and has dabbled in an array of New Age and metaphysical pursuits, from psychics to chakras.

"I've been a seeker pretty much my whole life," says Tom, who recently bought a second home in Sedona, Ariz.--a mecca of sorts for the chant-and-crystal set. "What I've realized is that, especially in Los Angeles, a lot of people are on some kind of path, even if they're not completely conscious of it.

"I've sort of always been on a path to find more peace, more security within myself. I've always felt like I needed something to help me feel better."

Not that she's feeling bad these days.

With a career that's been going strong since she made her Broadway debut at 17 in "A Chorus Line," Tom has recently broken through to mainstream film and TV success. She's best known for her performance in "The Joy Luck Club" and from her recurring role on the TV series "Friends," as Ross' girlfriend last season.

Yet despite her screen work, Tom hasn't completely abandoned the stage. She recently wrote and performed a solo show called "25 Psychics" and is now making her East West Players debut in "Ikebana," directed by Lisa Peterson. Alice Tuan's new play focuses on a family of Chinese American women grappling with issues of personal history and identity as they learn about Japanese flower arranging, known as ikebana.

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The family in "Ikebana" includes two sisters, one an introverted writer, the other an outgoing singer. Tom plays the latter character, the one director Peterson describes as "a flamboyant, dual-natured person. She's playing the wild sister of the two."

It's a trickier role than one might expect. The actress in this part "has to be able to convey a certain self-absorption," Peterson says.

"Lauren is able to do that without losing our sympathy for the character, which is hard," she says.

"She's able to maintain enough vulnerability that we still love her. Lauren is really outgoing and fun, but she also questions everything she does, so [her work is] complicated in the right way. She has the right amount of self-doubt to make the part work."

Tom's self-doubt stems from her childhood in Highland Park, Ill. She and her older brother came from the only Chinese American family in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Their father was an entrepreneur who ran five small restaurant-related businesses, their mother a housewife.

Tom discovered dance as a teenager, spending every spare moment away from her high school studies in the studio.

"I was very shy, and it was the perfect way for me to express myself," she says.

In 1982, at 16, Tom happened into the kind of break of which show-biz fables are made. When the national touring company of "A Chorus Line" came through Chicago, Tom auditioned and was invited to join the show.

She was young, but she recognized a major opportunity.

"I was so excited," she says. "It was the happiest moment of my life. I couldn't even believe that that happened."

Unfortunately, her good fortune met with considerably less excitement at home.

"I was supposed to go to Northwestern and become a dental hygienist, get married, have babies," Tom says. "My father was very against me being in show business.

"Usually in Chinese culture, education is the most highly valued. Theater is kind of like right next to being a prostitute--not that bad, but it's really not very highly regarded."

Inevitably, the "Chorus Line" offer led to arguments between the teenage Tom and her father.

"It was very hard for me because my mother was so excited for me and my dad was very wary of the whole thing," she says. "I was fighting so hard to prove to him that this made sense for me.

"Years later, my mom told me that during that time that we were fighting so much he was secretly very relieved that I was such a tiger about it. That meant he didn't have to worry about me. But I didn't know that at the time. I felt like I was totally disappointing him."

Ultimately, Tom was allowed to leave home to go with the show on tour.

"They trained me on the road for six months, gave me singing lessons and some acting lessons," she recalls.

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