PORTLAND, Maine — In the summer of 2018, Sara Juli was feeling fried. A working mother of two, she was depressed and disillusioned about her marriage, and really disconnected. She loved her husband, but the relationship had been drained of sex, desire and communication.
But rather than get a divorce, she made a show about “blowing up marriage.”
Juli’s personal story about the struggle to revitalize long-term relationships — captured in the one-woman show “Burnt Out Wife” — has found its audience. A witty and provocative mix of comedy, storytelling, song and contemporary dance, her show has sold out its debut weekend of performances in Portland. Even her husband is a fan.
Her personal life notwithstanding, Juli is onto something. Juli, who lives in Falmouth, was one of 20 national artists to receive a grant for $45,000 this summer from the New England Foundation of the Arts to build her show.
Critiques of the institutions of marriage and monogamy, particularly from a feminist bent, are a growing discipline, and much has been written about changing attitudes toward sex and relationships among younger generations, who are marrying later and having less sex than previous ones.
“Despite a 50 percent divorce rate for first marriages and 65 percent the second time around; despite the staggering frequency of affairs; despite the fact that monogamy is a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out, we continue to cling to the wreckage with absolute faith in its structural soundness,” writes the psychotherapist Esther Perel in her 2007 book Mating in Captivity, which Juli read over the process of building the show.
Perel asserts that over time, humans’ will toward comfort and security in long-term relationships corresponds to a natural decline in sexual desire. The more that distance collapses between a couple in a relationship, the less space there is for each of them to want one another.
Juli is no stranger to making art from her personal life. Raised and educated in New York, her resume contains a body of work that has been built from personal stories of her own life for more than 20 years, covering grief to money anxiety. In 2015, she made the dance-theater piece “Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis,” which humorously addressed aspects of motherhood that are often stigmatized or left undiscussed, like the monotony of daily routine, changes to libido, and loss of bladder control. The show documented Juli’s own experience of undergoing pelvic floor rehabilitation.
“I had so many populations of older women come up to me and talk about how I captured something for them,” Juli said. “For many women, it was about not feeling shame about your broken vagina. They said this dialogue didn’t exist when they had children. I felt like I was really making a difference in these women’s lives.”
In “Burnt-Out Wife,” the stigmatized element is marriage counseling. In one of the show’s bits, Juli delivers the line “I’m in marriage counseling” again and again, as if each utterance is meant to reduce the shame around the admission. In Juli’s work — as well as her married life — marriage counseling has created a space to be able to articulate the needs and desires that has given her conjugal relationship another path.
“It’s some of the best money I’ve ever spent,” she said about couples therapy. “I started off pointing the finger. ‘Well, he doesn’t do this, he’s not around, he travels a lot, I can’t access him, we don’t have time to be intimate.’ Now, we’ve leveled the playing field and understand that it’s a journey.”
Short of modeling couples’ therapy for her audience, Juli hopes that “Burnt-Out Wife” can be a conversation starter, a spark for those whose presumptions about the way relationships are supposed to be don’t overshadow the needs and dynamics that make them human.
“I still don’t know whether it’s going to work out in the long-term,” she said. “Neither does anyone. But I have this reinvestment through the process of making this piece of all the complexities that make relationships so complicated.”
Sara Juli’s “Burnt Out Wife” will be performed at SPACE 7 p.m. Friday and 9 p.m Saturday. Tickets are $30.