On a nearly empty stage, actress and comedian Sue Costello is a teenager dreaming of a different life as she postures in front of a full-length mirror. “One of these days, I’m going to be somebody,” she fantasizes in her one-woman show, “Minus 32 Million Words.” “I’m going to be pretty and rich and famous.” Ninety minutes later, Costello is an adult who wants self-acceptance more than stardom.
On a nearly empty stage, actress and comedian Sue Costello is a teenager dreaming of a different life as she postures in front of a full-length mirror. “One of these days, I’m going to be somebody,” she fantasizes in her one-woman show, “Minus 32 Million Words.” “I’m going to be pretty and rich and famous.”
Ninety minutes later, Costello is an adult who wants self-acceptance more than stardom.
“I don’t want to be somebody anymore, I just want to be me,” she tells God as she kneels on the rug in the black box theater of The Boston Center for the Arts. “I’ll do anything, but I need you to help me.”
In many ways, this autobiographical show is a familiar story about finding your own voice after growing up poor in a tough Boston Irish neighborhood. But Costello rivets the audience with a comedian’s gift for delivery and wit and an actress’ skill with emotion.
In her hometown debut, Costello, 42, is more exposed than when she performed the show off-off-Broadway in New York City, where family and friends were far away.
People who knew her may recognize the fast-talking fist fighter, who strove for acceptance with the popular crowd and defeated herself with drink and self-doubt. What they may be surprised about is how Costello turns a life that was a mess into a creative performance.
“The way I tell these stories, I’m honest and real and daring,” said Costello, who wrote and produced the show, which runs through April 3. “Everybody has secrets, no matter what they grew up with. This is for everyone who has secrets that are burying them alive.”
Costello attended St. William Elementary School in the Savin Hill neighborhood of Dorchester, graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School in Brighton in 1986, and studied theater at UMass/Boston, but left after a few years to do stand-up comedy in New York City.
Discovered at an open-mic night, Costello moved to Hollywood in the late 1990s and co-created and starred in “Costello,” a Fox network sit-com set in an Irish neighborhood in Boston.
But she felt manipulated in the television world and struggled with the producers over the show, which was canceled after four episodes.
That failure– plus the break-up of an eight-year relationship and a drunken driving accident by her beloved younger brother that paralyzed him – fueled her move back east and desire to write her one-woman show.
“I really just wanted to express myself and do it in front of people, not isolated in a space like an airport hangar,” she said. “I wanted to be creative and successful, but I didn’t want to be isolated.”
Costello continues to revise the show, which has plenty of humor and pathos but would benefit from fewer cliches and more subtlety.
Much of the show is about growing from a garrulous, questioning 10-year-old to an insecure, soft-hearted young teen to a belligerent, angry older teen. Her mother ignores her, her father derides and punishes her, sometimes physically, and her priest makes her think that her thoughts are “bad.” She feels like “a loser” in a neighborhood where no one has enough money, and young men die by drugs and gunfire.
It’s disturbing to watch her change from a a girl who befriends an unpopular kid into a teenager who “likes to be mean to things that are weaker than me.”
But even when she is most aggressive, she carries conflicting desires.
“There’s two people trapped inside me,” she says in the show. “One that says, ‘Why bother?’ and one that says ‘I want to change.’”
When a friend is shot dead, it’s a wake-up call for her.
“I think I should help people who have less than me, but that would be hard to find,” she tells her friend at his wake.
In one of the most entertaining vignettes, she is an aide to mentally handicapped adults. The scene begins with her madcap efforts to keep them in line on a walk to a doughnut shop and ends with her indignation about the lack of respect they receive in the store. Unexpectedly, they inspire her.
“Every day they get up and take care of themselves and they have nothing,” she says in the show. “I figure if they can do that, I can.”
In the scenes where she is launching her career, Costello shines when she does a stand-up comic routine and moves the audience as she pursues her dream. At various points, she pours out her heart to therapists, and eventually realizes they can do only so much.
“I’d been trying to search for people my whole life to take care of me, and I learned I didn’t need all these people,” she says in the show. “It’s inside of me.”
Her father and mother, James and Arlene Costello, now live in Hingham.
“They were difficult parents to have, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t love them and that I’m not going to tell my story,” Costello said. “I love them almost more now that I’ve told it.”
Asked if her parents are upset by her depiction, she said, “They say, ‘Oh, she’s exaggerating.’ It’s not as big a deal as people think.”
Costello said she has has made peace with her past.
“Every once in a while something will come up and I’ll go, ‘Why am I such a freak show?’” she said and then laughed. “But I’m happy.”
She doesn’t know where she next will perform “Minus 32 Million Words,” but is looking forward to the release in November of the film “The Fighter.” She plays a sister of boxer Micky Ward, played by Donnie Wahlberg. She also has been in the films “Southie” and “Once in a Life.”
For now, Costello is excited about her show’s three-week run and is energized after each performance.
“With a stand-up audience, you never know whether they’re going to heckle you and you have to maintain that hilarity at every level,” she said. “In this, I have more room to breathe and do what I want to do.”
Reach Patriot Ledger writer Jody Feinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO . . .
WHAT: “Minus 32 Million Words”
WHEN: Through April 3
WHERE: The Plaza Black Box Theatre at The Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston.
TICKETS: $39.25, $43. 50 at 617-421-9674 or bostontheatrescene.com.