Of cows and men: Farmers daughter tells her story

Cows sleep 3.9 hours a day, and eat or chew their cud 16 hours a day. Vivien Straus offers up this interesting tidbit while talking about her upcoming show, “E-i-E-i-Oy!: In Bed with the Farmer’s Daughter,” which is full of such bovine trivia.

“There are a lot of cow facts in the show, and each one is connected to the story so you learn something about my psyche or the decisions I’ve made, in relation to the cows,” she said.

Cows play a big role in Vivien Straus’ one-woman show.

And Straus knows a lot about cows. The daughter of Marshall dairy farmers Bill and Ellen Straus, a German and Dutch immigrant couple who fled the Nazis and whose son Albert — Vivien’s older brother — went on to found Straus Family Creamery, Vivien Straus really was one of the farmer’s two daughters (insert joke here), though in her one-woman show, she’s the one cracking all the jokes.

“Farmer’s Daughter” opens Friday, April 4 and runs Friday and Saturday nights through May 10 at NOHSpace in San Francisco, with an artisan cheese reception after each performance.

Although young Jews becoming farmers doesn’t raise any eyebrows today, it wasn’t always that way. “We were the only Jews we knew growing up whose parents were farmers, and it felt like the most unhip, stupid and backwards thing,” said Straus, 57.

Straus discovered her passion for acting through her school’s 4-H club. A parent — often her mother — would write short plays, sometimes with songs, which the kids would perform at the county fair. “They were really cheesy, but it was a blast,” said Straus.

She decided to major in theater in college, “a kind of ridiculous degree,” she admitted. “I don’t think my father was ever very happy about it, but years later, he came to see me in a play and said, ‘Oh. You’re good.’ ”

Straus moved to San Francisco after college, because her father believed he was going to die prematurely and wanted his children close to home. “Of course he didn’t,” she said. “He died at almost 89.”

She began doing theater productions in the city, and it was during this time that the incident on which her show is based took place.

Straus recalls that her father, with whom she had a complicated relationship (a theme also in the show), told her to seek out a specific type of man for a husband: one with “sparkling eyes and a deep soul.”

One drunken evening, she meets a guy with those criteria; he comes home with her and doesn’t leave.

Though “he was European, he was a political refugee and he had suffered,” the man was nothing like her father, Straus said in response to a reporter’s question. “Not even one iota, except for the fact that he was a strong personality.”

She found herself “living with someone I didn’t want to live with, and it took me a long time to come out of it. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. It’s odd to look back and think, ‘How the hell did I do that?’ But I think it’s something a lot of young women do.”

Straus moved to New York and Los Angeles to pursue her acting career, while working as vice president of marketing for the family business at the same time. She got bit parts in movies such as “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Heaven and Earth,” but eventually returned home, settling in Petaluma to manage the farm on which she grew up and creating cheesetrail.org and the California Cheese Trail App, which help cheese-loving tourists find local dairies to visit in Marin and Sonoma counties.

Straus first performed a version of her show in fringe festivals over a decade ago. Wanting to perform again recently, she was going to write something new, but decided to dust off this oldie-but-goodie, revising and improving it.

“At first I wondered whether I can do this again, it could be really ridiculous as it’s such an old story and I’m a different person,” she said. “But I asked a lot of people for feedback and realized that it works.”

The show is inflected with her Jewish humor, though it’s also universal, as coming-of-age stories often are.

Looking back at the story from her current vantage point, “It’s amazing how reality can be funnier than anything you can imagine,” she said.

Vivien Straus performs “E-i-E-i-Oy!” at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 10 at NOHSpace, 2840 Mariposa St., S.F. $20. www.vivienstraus.com/itsthecheese

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."