NEW YORK — There's one very special item hanging in actress Sonia Manzano's closet that she'll never get rid of: a pink shirt, handmade by her late mother.
"We were really poor, but she would sew beautiful outfits for us all the time," says Manzano, who has played Maria on TV's "Sesame Street" for almost four decades. "I cherish the things she actually crafted with her own hands and this is one of them."
The warm memory of that pink shirt is in the back of Manzano's mind as she performs "Love, Loss and What I Wore," a play based on Ilene Beckerman's popular scrapbook-memoir that traces her life through her wardrobe.
The off-Broadway show, produced by Daryl Roth and written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, and supplemented with their friends' stories, features a rotating cast of five actors, who perform in four-week cycles. It uses clothing and accessories to tell funny, poignant stories that sound very specific but turn out to be very relatable.
"All women have a memory about a piece of clothing or an accessory. That memory is the opening of the door that the emotions flood out of," says Roth. "So it seems superficial on the surface, but these stories really touch a deep chord."
Since debuting at Roth's 99-seat theater on 15th Street, the show has taken on a life of its own. This fall it celebrated its second anniversary at its permanent home in the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street and it also has played on six continents — in 14 countries as different as France and Argentina — and next month Manzano and her four cast mates will hit the road as part of its first national tour.
Nora Ephron, the writer and director of films including "Julie & Julia" and "Sleepless in Seattle," has a simple explanation for why the show — just five women on a simple stage reading from binders — resonates with women.
"Everybody associated their clothing with an important event in their life — their divorce, their marriage, falling in love, their prom nights," she says during an interview with her sister and Roth. "It's just so powerful for women."
Over 100 actresses have felt the power, including Samantha Bee, Alexis Bledel, Kristin Chenoweth, Tyne Daly, Fran Drescher, Janeane Garofalo, Melissa Joan Hart, Carol Kane, Minka Kelly, Jane Lynch, Natasha Lyonne, Rosie O'Donnell, Rhea Perlman, Caroline Rhea, Doris Roberts, Sherri Shepherd and Brooke Shields.
The stories pinball from the horror of swimsuit buying and surviving barbs of disapproval from your mother about outfit choices to the story of a woman who gave up wearing miniskirts in college after being raped.
"One minute you're hysterical talking about what's in your purse and the next minute your heart is breaking. It has that beautiful journey that I think all women relate to," says Roth.
Asked before a recent rehearsal who they'd still love to have join the show, Nora Ephron looks at her sister, then Roth and answers first. "I have a secret fantasy that someday we'll get Linda Lavin to do it all by herself."
Roth laughs and nods. "And she could," she says.
Over the years, the box office has risen and fallen depending on which star was on stage but "Love, Loss and What I Wore" has endured, having been performed more than 900 times in New York in front of 155,500 people, as well for crowds in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Its success was unexpected: The hope was to get it licensed so stock and amateur companies could do the piece in their school gyms, and have it performed in Paris or Buenos Aires, without translation.
"As long as we can keep its cast well, people will come. So the whole key is to keep that going," says Roth.
After a month performing the show in New York, Manzano and her four cast mates — Tony Award-winner Daisy Eagan ("The Secret Garden"), Myra Lucretia Taylor ("Nine"), Emily Dorsch ("In the Next Room"), and Loretta Swit (Hot Lips Houlihan on TV's "M-A-S-H") — will take it to five cities and five other actresses will take over the shows at the Westside Theatre.
Manzano's cast will hit Scottsdale, Ariz., from Jan. 3-8; Tampa, Fla., from Jan. 10-15; Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., from Jan. 17-22; Charlotte, N.C., from Jan. 24-29; and Detroit from Feb. 7-March 4. She says she's looking forward to being part of her first tour.
"I see a lot of tonsils when I'm looking out into the audience and telling these stories because people are laughing so loudly," says Manzano. "After the show, they say, 'Oh, I thought I was the only one who had that sensibility. I thought I was the only one who went crazy over a purse.'"
There are no plans for a male equivalent. "Men's stories are told everywhere now. This is about us," says Delia Ephron, whose screenwriting credits include "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."
Her sister agrees, adding that if they ever tackled a testosterone version, the focus would have to shift from clothing: "Then it's 'Love, Loss, and What I Drove,' right? Cars or music."
Part of the appeal of the show is its flexibility — two days of rehearsals lead to a month of shows for each cast, a manageable workload that offers actresses with unpredictable schedules some steady work and visibility.
For Manzano, though, just bonding with a new group of actresses is fun. For one thing, they're humans. "I must say, I really love performing with performers who don't have furry faces and big red noses," she says, laughing, "though they're just as talented."