Solo queen Sandra Tsing Loh has arrived at South Coast Rep with a couple of guest actresses in tow for The Madwoman In The Volvo, an autobiographical look at menopause and infidelity more likely to appeal to female theatergoers forty-five and older than to those who don’t fit this specific demographic.
Fortunately, as Loh points out early on, “Women 45 to 65 are America’s largest demographic group, woot, woot!”, and if you guesstimate that a huge chunk of SCR regulars fit precisely into that age bracket, the writer/performer looks to have another hit on her hands, though men and younger women may find Madwoman less engaging.
Loh’s decision to invite Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt along for her Volvo ride is a savvy one. Not only are the duo two of our finest stage stars, they add box-office appeal to what would otherwise be just another Sandra Tsing Loh solo show in the same vein as her previous Aliens In America and The Bitch Is Back.
Among the multiple roles essayed by Woody Allen/Nora Ephron regular Aaron is that of just-turning-fifty Deborah, who decides after seeing a Sundance Channel documentary that the annual event known as Burning Man would provide the perfect excuse for her women’s group to pile into an RV and take to the open road.
It’s while at Burning Man (whose many sights include “naked 60-something-year-old men with big Buddha bellies doing giant plies to the sun, dusty withered berries hanging”) that Sandra’s ten-year best-friendship with her manager “Charlie” (who is also the women’s RV driver) turns into something that will spell the end of our narrator’s twenty year marriage.
Sandra’s brother “Eugene” (I’m guessing that his name too has been changed to protect the innocent) advises his lovestruck sis to give “Mr. X” (as in “ex”) “at least 48 hours, preferably 72, but 48 is minimum, to process horrible news like this before he can go back to work,” which means picking precisely the right day to drop the bomb.
As you may already have surmised, anyone in Sandra Tsing Loh’s private life should stand warned that “anything you say or do can be used against you” (albeit pseudonymously), mostly to humorous though occasionally dramatic effect. (Loh’s revelation of the events surrounding her brother’s wife’s death is both powerful and uncomfortably personal.)
In any case, while attempting to process the end of her marriage and the beginning of Life-Partnership Number Two, 46-year-old Sandra finds herself facing the onset of the “hormonal storm” better known as menopause, and despite friend Lily’s reassurances that she can now “get drunk and have sex without a diaphragm with three different guys and now worry,” adapting to The Change In Life is more easily said than done.
Women who’ve gone through menopause will empathize, others may sympathize, but I’m guessing that those in the latter category may find themselves tuning out at times during The Madwoman In The Volvo’s more menopausal moments. (At least this reviewer did.)
Still, Loh’s latest solo(ish) piece does offer South Coast Rep audiences something out of the ordinary, and Loh is nothing if not a charismatic stage presence.
Director Lisa Peterson’s imaginative staging along with multiple cameo gems from the divine duo of Aaron and Holt and a terrific production design turn The Woman In The Volvo into something more than simply Loh In A Spotlight.
Rachel Hauck’s striking scenic design, Candice Cain’s quickly modifiable costumes, Geoff Korf’s dramatic lighting, and Lindsay Jones’s jaunty original music and clever sound design are all the kind of topnotch creations that South Coast Rep audiences have come to expect.
Jerry Patch is dramaturg. Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.
Ultimately, audience reaction to The Madwoman In The Volvo will depend on how neatly they fit into its particular niche. Though I did take to it at least part of the way, those who’ve been in Sandra Tsing Loh’s shoes are more likely to enjoy the entire ride.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
January 12, 2106
Photos: Debora Robinson, SCR