DOOR TO DOOR, Victory Gardens Theater. It seems inevitable. Once a comic writer or performer has mastered the art of making people laugh, his or her next impulse is to make them cry. Often this move ends in disaster. Think of Woody Allen’s pointless, pretentious Bergman rip-off, Interiors. But sometimes the writer’s work actually improves, becoming richer and deeper. It happened to Neil Simon in the 80s when he wrote Brighton Beach Memoirs and its two sequels.

And it’s happened to James Sherman with this bittersweet play about three generations of Jewish women growing up in Chicago between 1936 and the present. His past attempts at writing something serious, such as Romance in D, at times seemed gawky and earthbound–more like comedies without jokes than real plays, especially when set beside his buoyant comedies, notably the finely crafted Beau Jest.

This time around Sherman gets it right. His tone is serious without being somber, and he provides just enough loving schmaltz to soften the heart. More important, he knows his characters inside and out: first-generation Bessie, still bedeviled by memories of Cossacks and the passage to America; second-generation Mary, trying to find her identity in America; and third-generation Deborah, dealing with the madness of our times. Telling their stories with simplicity and elegance, Sherman and director Dennis Zacek–who employs an unusually light touch–make us want to know them too. –Jack Helbig