Critic's Choice

'The Madwoman in the Volvo' offers a comic romp through a midlife crisis

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

Sandra Tsing Loh's midlife crisis may turn out to be the best thing that has ever happened to her career. Adultery, divorce and menopause have given this multidisciplinary humorist a banquet of material that should keep her busy long after the hot flashes have faded.

For those who missed Loh's confessional rambles in the Atlantic magazine or her memoir "The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones" or her solo performance show "The B**** Is Back" that was served cabaret style at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica last year, there's another opportunity to discover what the lifting of the "fertility cloud" has done to Loh's comic instincts. South Coast Repertory is presenting the world premiere of "The Madwoman in the Volvo," an impressively theatricalized version of her personal journey through what used to be called, in the days of tidy patriarchal euphemism, "the change."

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The production, directed by Lisa Peterson, is a polished gem. "The Madwoman in the Volvo" features Loh onstage with two other performers, the wonderful Caroline Aaron (whose husky Bea Arthuresque voice finds hilarity in throwaway lines) and the game Shannon Holt, both of whom play themselves along with a parade of exaggeratedly sketched comic figures.

The show playfully refers to itself as "meta," and the staging has an elegant fluidity. Microphones are set up on Rachel Hauck's abstract set, attractively lighted by Geoff Korf. The production at times has the feeling of a visually arresting radio play, but Loh, a rebel in a black leather jacket with a feminist cause, combines the bouncy presence of a solo performance artist with the vulnerable wildness of a stand-up comic.

She may indeed be more fun in person than on the page, especially with Peterson's direction reining her in just enough to keep her tale disciplined. A volcanic oversharer like Loh needs a tough editor to prevent her from lapsing not so much into exhibitionism as sprawling self-indulgence.

Loh, whose "character" is listed in the program simply as Sandra, begins on a Dantesque note, quoting from the opening of "The Divine Comedy": "Midway in our life's journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost." For Loh, it was a desert rather than a forest. A trip to Burning Man, the annual hippie-dippy gathering for artistic self-expression in Black Rock City, Nev., occasioned by a member of her women's writing group turning 50, wreaked unthinkable havoc.

While Loh's companions are determined to let their freak flags fly, she's content to do some organic drugs and gaze at the stars. Until, that is, sparks fly between her and her longtime manager. This isn't a passing sexual storm but an orgasmic weather event that will upend her life with the epochal force of global warming.

Loh abruptly rewrites her story in a way that has tragically derailed quite a few fictional women, including most famously Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. Fortunately, Loh has an inexhaustible sense of humor to help her survive the roller coaster she's hopped on. She's confused and a little horrified, but she's determined not to become a casualty, even if it requires forced levity with fellow divorcees at Chardonnay-soaked happy hours.

Her keen eye as a writer, always ready to pounce on zeitgeisty detail, keeps her occupied if not always entirely sane. Kale chips aren't her answer to the bodily changes that ambush her after this meteoric romance sets her into a tailspin. To the recommendation that she renounce caffeine, alcohol and sugar to offset menopause's physical woes, Loh and her girlfriends enjoy a good hard belly laugh.

"The Madwoman in the Volvo" neither makes Loh a villain nor a hero. Irony comes naturally to her. But though she has plenty of fun at her own expense, the dominant impression is that of a woman feeling her way through her complicated and ever-shifting destiny. (Aaron and Holt, when not assuming the occasional male role, serve as her female chorus.)

The limitation of the work may be endemic to the personal essay form that she specializes in. Loh has no doubt edited and embellished her tale. But tethered as she is to autobiography, she is deprived of the kind of invention that could endow her writing with more universal objectivity. (Alan Bennett, moving from diary entry to book to play to film, might provide a useful model for Loh in the imaginative expansion of private material.)

Her own story doesn't always artfully resonate. And the connections that she tries to draw between her own experience and that of her mother, who suffered from depression, are too tentative. The show's unshapely narrative could use an exercise bike.

But even with the lulls and digressive cul-de-sacs, "The Madwoman in the Volvo" is bracing in its witty sociological commentary and its refusal to accept clichéd notions of biology as destiny. If the writing seems caught between traditional playwriting and domesticated performance art, Peterson's production provides a sleek theatrical conveyance for Loh's acute confessional comedy.

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'The Madwoman in the Volvo'

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Jan. 24.

Tickets: $30 to $77 (subject to change)

Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 12, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Comic side of midlife crisis - Sandra Tsing Loh's bumpy life is an open book in `Madwoman in the Volvo.' - THEATER REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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