By William Plummer
February 12, 2001 12:00 PM

Actress Julianna Margulies first read the script for Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues last March, when she was in Prague filming a miniseries based on the King Arthur legend. Sitting in the hair-dressing trailer, Margulies and the actors who portrayed Arthur and Lancelot laughed hysterically at the play’s outrageous bits about pelvic exams and pubic hair. “Then I got back and watched a performance,” she recalls. “I had no idea of the power. I was excited, sad, afraid, liberated. I’d never seen a piece of theater evoke so many emotions.”

Margulies is not alone. All over the planet, audiences have been shaken up by Ensler’s hilarious and harrowing meditation on a portion of the female anatomy. Based on interviews with 2 women, the 18 monologues—ranging from riffs on puberty to accounts of rape and incest—amount to nothing less, says Ensler, 47, than “a crusade to wipe out the shame and embarrassment that many women still associate with their bodies or their sexuality.”

On Feb. 1 more than 7 celebrities—including Monologues veterans Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Calista Flockhart and Whoopi Goldberg—will perform the play at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. The occasion, marked by similar gatherings from Los Angeles to Sofia, Bulgaria, is V-Day, an annual event that helps fund groups around the world that fight violence against women. Ensler started V-Day in 1997, after her play won an Obie Award. “Women were coming up to me and sharing their stories,” she explains. “I felt I had to do something. There was so much pain and shame out there.”

Ensler herself is no stranger to such burdens. Raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., she was the second of three children of a food-industry executive and his homemaker wife. (To protect her siblings’ privacy, Ensler prefers not to discuss them in public.) “When Ensler turned 5, she says, her father began to abuse her sexually, and he continued to do so until she was 1. He would fly into rages, thrashing her with a belt or throwing her against the wall. “There’s some stuff I remember,” she says, “and some stuff I don’t remember.”

Childhood friend Judy Corcoran says the neighbors always knew there was something rotten in the Ensler household. “Her parents were scary,” says Corcoran, 47, who describes them as strict and strange and says she once saw a red handprint on Eve’s behind. Growing up, says Ensler, “I was very sad, very angry, very defiant. I was the girl with the dirty hair. I didn’t fit anywhere.”

As the years passed she began to retreat into her own world. She wrote feverishly in her journal, inventing characters and creating stories about them. “I wrote down every single thing that happened to me,” says Ensler, who as a teenager would run away for weeks, taking shelter with friends. “Writing saved me.”

In the early ‘7s Ensler took off for Vermont’s Middlebury College, where she became known as a militant feminist. But while she inveighed against sexism, she saved her harshest judgments for herself. “My whole life,” she says, “I have struggled more than anything with the feeling of being bad.” After graduating in 1975, she says, she lost her bearings. She dated men who beat her, and her life revolved increasingly around drugs and alcohol. One night she landed at a New York City tavern, where she met Richard McDermott, a 34-year-old bartender who offered her a sympathetic ear and a place to stay. “I just hit bottom,” she says. “There was nowhere else to go.”

McDermott persuaded her to enter rehab, and once she had cleaned up, she helped him get sober. “We were good for each other,” says Ensler, who married McDermott in 1978. Soon afterward she adopted his 19-year-old son Mark—just eight years her junior—who had lost his own mother in a gun accident. She encouraged the boy’s dream of being an actor, and after Ensler had a miscarriage, Mark honored her by taking the name Dylan—which she had planned to give the baby-when he registered with the Screen Actors Guild. Now the star of ABC’s The Practice, Dylan McDermott, 39, says of Ensler, “Eve’s nurturing and support has meant the world to me.” Ensler, equally grateful, says the relationship with Dylan taught her “how to be a loving human being.”

Ensler spent the next few years waitressing, protesting and, more than ever, writing. She wrote a one-woman show denouncing the Gulf War and a play based on her years of volunteering at a homeless shelter. “A lot of her work was very startling and strange,” says Corcoran. In one of Ensler’s early plays a character with a vegetable fetish insists that his girlfriend have intimate relations with an eggplant.

Her marriage, meanwhile, began to fray. “I needed the independence, the freedom,” Ensler says. She and McDermott split in 1988, and since 199 she has lived with Israeli psychotherapist Ariel Orr Jordan, himself a survivor of incest by his father. But Ensler remains close to her adopted son. In the ‘8s Dylan introduced her to his acting teacher at Manhattan’s Neighborhood Playhouse, Joanne Woodward. The class read Ensler’s Coming from Nothing, about a girl trying to remember her childhood. “I was enchanted with her,” says Woodward, who in 1987 directed Shirley Knight in a production of Ensler’s The Depot. “Eve is overwhelming and unshakable.”

For her part, Ensler gets teary when she talks about Woodward. “Joanne is my mentor,” she says. “She and Paul [Newman] believed in me.” Their faith paid off four years ago, when The Vagina Monologues—then a one-woman show starring Ensler—became an Off-Broadway hit. Ensler got the idea for the piece in 1994 after listening to a well-known feminist discuss her genitalia in contemptuous terms. “I was shocked,” she says. She decided to ask other women how they felt about their private parts and to go public with what she learned.

Woodward recalls taking New-man, along with actress Marisa Tomei and actor-director Mark Wade, to see Ensler perform The Monologues. “At one point I looked to my right,” says Woodward, “and Mark was watching the play through his fingers. On the other side of him Marisa was sobbing uncontrollably, she was so moved. I thought [the play] was amazing.”

Many of Ensler’s colleagues agree. “Eve has the biggest brass ovaries,” says actress Kathy Najimy. Lately she has needed them. Ensler recently spent a couple of weeks in Afghanistan, where she narrowly escaped a flogging for not wearing a burqa, the suffocating garment—compulsory under the fundamentalist Taliban regime—that covers women from head to foot. She also went to Africa with Calista Flockhart and met with Kenyan women protesting female circumcision. Her most difficult journey, though, may be the one she has made toward reconciliation with her mother.

“I’ve really come to love my mother,” says Ensler, whose father died a decade ago. She has come to understand, she says, how Chris Ensler, who grew up poor, depended on her husband. “My desire for her to rise up and protect me was very strong,” says Ensler. “But when I look back I see that she had three kids and no place to go. What was she going to do? Part of what I’m learning now is forgiveness.”

At no apparent cost to her sense of humor. “I asked her how it was for them to be back together,” says Corcoran, “and Eve said, ‘Now I have a pain-in-the-ass mother like everybody else. I wonder if Hallmark has a card for that?’ ”

William Plummer

Lynda Wright in New York City