The Madwoman in the Volvo
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
South Coast Repertory
Through January 24
The charm of Sandra Tsing Loh — or of any successful comedian and satirist for that matter — lies in the ability to transform commonplace yet intensely private experiences into performance material that is entertaining, enlightening and, for some viewers perhaps, cathartic.
The Madwoman in the Volvo is essentially about a married woman’s midlife crisis. Although structurally dissimilar, it nonetheless retains many of the themes — and some of the anecdotes — of The Bitch is Back, a solo piece Loh performed in a cabaret setting at the Broad’s Edye Stage in Santa Monica last summer.
Based on her book of the same name, the play’s central event is the breakup of the performer’s 20-year marriage after she commenced an adulterous affair with a longtime platonic friend. The piece also deals in a colorful way with the pressures of menopause, with choosing between an old love and a new one, with wafting between stability and insecurity, and with the conflicts the writer/lead performer dealt with as both daughter and mother.
Unlike The Bitch is Back, Madwoman, which is directed by Lisa Peterson, calls for two supporting players. In this staging they are Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who assume the roles of Loh’s friends, children and siblings, as well as her husband, lover and therapist.
For decades a mainstay on the Southern California cultural scene, hosting both The Loh Down (about science) and The Loh Life (about lifestyle) on KPCC public radio, Loh is indubitably witty, intelligent and engaging. The stories she tells here reflect the under-addressed issues of women over 45, and she invests tremendous personal energy as a cheerleader in their vanguard.
But some of the riffs — for example, the angst of admitting to being a woman of a certain age while living in L.A. — are a little over familiar by now. And Peterson has kept her reins loose: She more or less lets these veteran performers just do their thing, not always to full advantage.
Perhaps the production’s main drawback is its less-than-intimate venue, which takes something of the edge off this very personal narrative. Sitting in the last row of a larger auditorium, peeking over a taller person’s head, certainly dulled it for me. And scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s chilly, sparse and abstract set does absolutely nothing to underscore the wildly feminine — and feminist — passion that Loh strives so mightily to represent.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Sun. 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m., through Jan 24. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org; Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.