Having strong chemistry on stage suggests that the actors are not only invested in playing their own parts to the utmost of their ability but, also, they are mindful of helping their cast mates reach the pinnacle of their potential as well. Chemistry, when achieved, generally results in a dramatic explosiveness during which audience members truly forget that they are in a theatre and feel instead like eavesdroppers on intimate conversations, heated arguments, and just the everyday goings on of characters’ lives. With its production of Pulitzer Prizing finalist Madeleine George’s “Hurricane Diane,” Avant Barde Theatre proves that having the right chemistry, some might say the perfect chemistry, can culminate in a show that leaves the audience deeply engaged, if not downright spellbound.
With its production…Avant Barde Theatre proves that having the right chemistry, some might say the perfect chemistry, can culminate in a show that leaves the audience deeply engaged, if not downright spellbound.
The denizens of Monmouth, New Jersey don’t know what’s about to hit them, or rather, what’s about to swoop in like a tornado and change their lives, one pawpaw at a time. Four, self-described “typical women” inhabit a cul-de-sac world in which their primary focus is on their weekly coffee, less-than-attentive husbands, and whose curb appeal reigns supreme. They are otherwise oblivious, as many people tend to be, to the fact that climate change, the fallout of industry, and harmful practices such as drilling, burning, and slashing are decimating the environment. Otherworldly Diane, a.k.a. Dionysus, a.k.a. Bacchus, a.k.a. Bromius, is definitely not okay with the trajectory of planet Earth—per an impassioned and frustrated soliloquy at the open—and she is intent on doing something about it. She thus emerges from her “semi-retirement” as a Vermont landscaper and devises “Operation: Save the Planet.”
Diane proceeds to infiltrate the lives of these four NJ women assuming the form of a gardener—a somewhat extremist gardener—who wants to see the homogenous manicured lawns of America ripped out and the many, many curbside Paneras torn down. Her objective is to seduce each woman and thus recruit them as acolytes in her quest to re-forest the world and return it to its more “natural” Edenic state. The unsuspecting housewives, Carol, Beth, Renee and Pam, all initially exhibit some degree of resistance to Diane’s in-your-face charms, with Carol being the toughest, and final, nut to crack.
The play isn’t content to just rest on its climate activism laurels. George’s work often gravitates toward questions of gender and sexuality, frequently examining lesbianism within the context of a heteronormative environment. It doesn’t get any more heteronormative than this New Jersey cul-de-sac. While the entrance of Diane, a pronounced butch lesbian, and her subsequent entanglements with each of the four women would seem to play into the kind of cookie-cutter butch/femme dynamic that many people are apt to assign to lesbian couplings, George presents a far more nuanced understanding of this type of relationship given the way that each of the women’s personal stories unfolds. George offers, dare I say, more complex shades of gay. Diane fills a gap, a vital need for each woman, and does so somewhat heroically. Here is where that chemistry comes into play.
As the titular “hurricane,” Caro Dubberly is as unpredictable and emotionally ferocious as you’d expect a god of this nature to be. The genius in their performance is in how they make soft and edgy come together so poetically. Madeleine George assigns the character of Diane a fairly heavy mission: seduce these women, transform their lives, and save the planet. A piece of cake. Any actor has got be up to this Herculean, or in this case Dionysian, task, and Dubberly most definitely is. But it is Jenna Berk’s portrayal of Carol, the uptight, typical-not-typical, put-upon housewife that steals the show. Without even saying anything, Berk, through her brilliantly executed expressions, reveals the story of this character’s life—the MIA husband; the stressful, not-worth-it job; and the pressure to live within the pretense of it all. Her final scene is a doozy, and in and of itself, totally worth the price of admission.
As the newly single Beth, Diane Cooper-Gould does a spectacular job of showing us the transformation that takes place after a divorce, when a woman alone must figure out how to be a woman alone. In a superb turn by Lolita Marie, HGTV Magazine editor Renee struggles with her own sexuality in a wistful closeted way that is both endearing and frustrating in as much as you just want to shake the character awake and say “live your best life” already. Then there’s Pam (Alyssa Sanders). The most stereotypically “New Jersey” of these New Jersey housewives, Pam is the leopard-printed, fiercely Italian-American (Abruzzo in the house), tell-it-like-it-is comedian of the group and Sanders inhabits this role body and soul.
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman (who earlier this year also directed Dubberly in 4615 Theater Company’s “paperbacks”), “Hurricane Diane” really is a profound chemistry lesson. Zimmerman lets the women fully explore the nooks and crannies of the various friendships and dalliances. Her direction lends itself incredibly well to the more out-loud theatrical moments of George’s play as well as the quieter ones. Set design by Sarah Beth Hall is appropriately suburban and allows for the surrealistic ‘Greek God’ moments to easily overtake the mundaneness of this kitchen space. Lighting by Hailey LaRoe hits the perfect notes, whether suggesting an incoming storm or the emergence of the climate change-naysaying dark forces threatening to overtake the universe, as do sound effects by Delany Bray. “Hurricane Diane” is an extremely fun play to watch (and seemingly looks like a pretty fun one to put on as well) with a few sobering takeaways. As produced by Avant Bard, this show is refreshingly invested in depicting just how critically important strong relationships are—woman to woman, woman to the spiritual, and human to the world.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
“Hurricane Diane” runs through June 10, 2023 presented by Avant Bard Theatre at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 S Lang St, Arlington, VA 22206. For more information and tickets, go online. COVID Safety: Avant Bard requests that patrons wear face masks for the safety of the performers.