The real Maenads of MonmouthKerry Reidon June 29, 2022 at 3:53 pm

Back in 2014, Theater Wit presented Madeleine George’s acerbic but aching comedy, Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, in which the denizens of a small New England college town wrestle with the dusty past, as represented by the display of the title creatures in the campus museum—which no one ever visits. George’s play wove in absurdist anachronistic segments, where the museum’s dioramas of prehistoric humans spoke to each other as if they were contemporary students, with a plot about two former lesbian lovers facing mortality and figuring out how to adapt to what the new (much younger) lover of one of them calls “alternative kinship structures.”

In Hurricane Diane, now in its local premiere at Wit under Jeremy Wechsler’s direction (he also staged Mammoths), George pulls off a similar mix of past and present by reaching back to Greek mythology and giving Dionysus (god of wine, vegetation, fertility, festivity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theater—phew!) a new identity as a lesbian gardener bent on healing the planet, one suburban lawn at a time. Dionysus/Diane (Kelli Simpkins) opens the show with a hilarious monologue about how the power of the gods has diminished in recent times; she’s been wandering the Earth largely incognito for centuries (which, she admits, is better than hanging out on boring Mount Olympus). For a while, she was in Burlington, Vermont, “living off the grid with a bunch of lesbian separatists in a consensus-based community.”

Hurricane Diane
Through 7/31: Thu-Sat 7 PM, Sun 2 PM; Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $25-$48

But as Diane, she’s now determined to enlist a quartet of suburban women in Monmouth, New Jersey, to her side as acolytes and devotees of permaculture—four being apparently the perfect number with which to start a new cult.

Carol (Carolyn Kruse), Diane’s first target, works in compliance with a pharmaceutical company (one that marketed a drug that left several infants with cardiac damage). Trapped in a loveless marriage, Carol seeks perfection in landscaping as represented by HGTV magazine, where her neighbor, Renee (Jazmín Corona), is an editor. (Renee had her own same-sex affair in her youth, which she’s prone to referencing at kaffeeklatsches.) Pam (Lori Myers), a brassy animal-print-bedecked Italian American, comes the closest to the Real Housewives of New Jersey tropes, while Beth (Aneisa Hicks), the insecure woman on the corner whose lawn is growing out of control in the wake of a divorce, proves an easy target for Diane’s “butch charm factory” when Carol rebuffs Diane’s plans to allow native pawpaws to run wild around her home.

Significantly, all four women had to rebuild their homes, if not their lives, after an unnamed real hurricane that we can assume refers to Sandy, but honestly, could be any hurricane in the years to come, given the increasing volatility and deadliness of our climate. In the wake of such cataclysms, Pam has become obsessively security-minded, Renee wants to bust things open in the pages of HGTV (where articles like “Six Hot Mulches You Need to Spread Right Now” dominate the gardening discourse), Beth just wants to be seen and heard, and Carol . . . she wants curb appeal and comfort. “Why should I sacrifice even one of my comforts, when my comforts are literally all that I have?” she asks defiantly.

On the surface, George’s story moves with clockwork precision as Simpkins’s seductive charmer makes her play for all the women. But like The Bacchae, Euripides’s bloody tale of the Maenads, or worshippers of Dionysus, who destroy in the name of their god, there’s an undercurrent of horror running through the perfectly wrought comedic performances of Wechsler’s ensemble. (Myers is particularly adept at going over the top without making us lose sight of the real basis of Pam’s fears.) Only now, George reminds us, the consumerist and political forces that represent order and comfort and calm are sometimes what’s actually strangling our lives and our environment. Joe Schermoly’s clever set, in which one cottage-chic kitchen serves as the nerve center for all four women’s homes with only minor changes in interior floral arrangements, disguises its own trickster nature until the dramatic hurricane makes landfall by the play’s climax.

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