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The drugs, the gritty blues-mama voice, the turbulent personality that filled concert halls--everybody knows that Janis Joplin. But that's not all there is to the '60s icon. At least according to Janis's sister, Laura. In 1992, Laura Joplin published Love, Janis, an even-handed biography of her sister that skips over the inflated pathos as the sisterly, teenage side of Janis makes a debut. The stage version of the book has its area premiere at the Cleveland Play House this week.

To back up her version of the singer/sister, Laura Joplin combined her own interviews and investigations with letters Janis sent back to her Texas family--an epistolary record of thoughts and concerns (at least the ones she was willing to share with her family) Janis wrote as she ascended to the hippie-queen throne.

Often, the letters read like something a nineteen-year-old might send home from college, but with strange, rock-icon twists. Eager and excited, hoping that her parents would be proud of her, Janis asks about her mother's health and her brother's grades. Then come the references to gigs at Hell's Angels parties, playing with the Grateful Dead, and hanging out with Jim Morrison.

One of Laura's photo captions sums it up nicely: "Janis returned home in the spring of 1965, after a disastrous experience shooting methedrine in San Francisco. We spent girlish hours styling our hair and experimenting with makeup and clothes."

The book sold well, so Joplin entrusted her cache of letters to Denver playwright Randal Myler, after seeing what she considered a well-rounded portrayal of Hank Williams Sr. in Myler's play Lost Highway. Myler, in turn, adapted the letters into the stage production. For Myler, who spent the late '60s in Janis's San Francisco himself, the letters gave him the hook he wanted while at the same time getting him off the hook as far as actually writing any Janis dialogue, or taking any criticism for his portrayal of her.

"The bad movies are coming, the bad books are already out; I just wanted to do a sliver [of Janis] in between," says Myler. Because the letters show a side of Janis that isn't quite reconcilable with the public persona (one expects a lot more "fuck"s and not quite so many "good heavens"s), he was inspired to use two Janises in every performance. Cathrine Curtin portrays Janis the private person, and Beth Hart and Andra C. Mitrovich alternate as Janis the public performer. This, as Myler points out, was the best of both worlds. One actress for the singing bit and the private bit, and all you'd have is a "panting Janis."

Three decades after her death, Janis Joplin continues to be a hot property: Big Brother and the Holding Company, still headed by indefatigable guitarist Sam Andrew, has released a new CD, Do What You Love. A live CD of Janis and Big Brother (Live at Winterland 1968) was released by Sony last June. And at least three films about Janis are in the works.

Andrew, who continued to perform with Janis after she left Big Brother, is also the musical director for Love, Janis. Living in the past is a little strange, he says, but "it's a full circle really. Imagine if you could go back to when you're fifteen years old and say, "Let's do it right this time."

Laura Joplin has a slightly different feeling on the matter. "Overall, my feeling is--this is fun, this is wonderful. I consider it an honor, getting to enjoy my memories in public." Evidently she did. In Denver, she went to see the show more than fifteen times.

--Aaron Steinberg

Love, Janis opens Friday, March 5 and runs through April 4 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. Performance times are 8 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday (except Tuesday, March 23, at 7 p.m.), with matinees Sundays at 2 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m., and March 11 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $31; $38 on Friday and Saturday evenings; call 216-795-7000. A collection of Joplin's letters are on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1 Key Plaza, through May 2.

More by Aaron Steinberg

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