Sandra Tsing Loh’s new performance piece, The Madwoman in the Volvo, now in its world-premiere engagement at South Coast Repertory, is a knockout tour de force derived from her highly regarded book The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, which in turn was inspired by her Best American Essay published in The Atlantic. Clocking in at less than ninety-minutes, Madwoman is the highly charged story of one woman’s midlife crisis that not coincidentally coincides with the onset of menopause and the hormonal changes that go with it.
Ms. Loh takes the stage like a veteran stand-up comic, engaging the audience with practiced ease and lighting up the stage with tremendous energy and spontaneity. If the play resembles stand-up, especially when the character, Sandra, roams the stage with a microphone in hand, it is stand-up on steroids. It also resembles a one-woman show, but Ms. Loh has written in roles for two actors to take on multiple characters. Her onstage partners, the terrific duo of Caroline Aaron (Actor A) and Shannon Holt (Actor B), play numerous roles of all sexes and ages. The show has an improvisational feel to it, but is in fact, tightly scripted. The ad libs are written in.
With tremendous amounts of situational humor as well as touches of searing angst, the story reaches back into Ms. Loh’s childhood with vignettes of her mother’s emotional struggles at about the same age. The show reveals the breakup of her marriage, which was ignited by a newly discovered passion for her long-time manager that took place after she and her friends experienced the mind-altering bash called Burning Man. The Madwoman in the Volvo is filled with sage, satirical observations and knowledgeable references to life in Southern California that had the audience howling in laughter. It has touching moments of pathos born of the rocky situations such a journey brings. With the domestic scene shattered and a new life with a new man starting up, of course, the children are at sea. And when the new love bumps upon rocky shores, loneliness and despair find purchase. Seeming at first a light-hearted, high-spirited romp, The Madwoman in the Volvo reveals an unlooked for depth of emotion.
The production, smartly directed by Lisa Peterson, is handsomely mounted with an open set by Rachel Hauck consisting of a shiny black platform that rests on a vast surrounding bed of sand with tall, architectural pillars of crisscrossed steel or aluminum members rising high. Geoff Korf’s lighting plot is excellent. A large textured panel that hangs off center behind the players changes color, providing visual variety, as does the vast cyclorama further upstage. The lights also keep the focus on Ms. Loh wherever she roams. The costume choices by Candice Cain reinforce character. I especially like the witty ensemble worn by Ms. Holt as a dissolute, divorced roué at a singles party. The sound design and original music by Lindsay Jones is spot on perfect.
The Madwoman in the Volvo, a superbly entertaining, deeply personal theatrical construct, runs through January 24 at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa. Take a drive; see the show.