One could conclude that Sandra Tsing Loh enjoys publicly owning up to her transgressions and that describing events most people save for therapy is easy for her. But in fact, as she explains before a rehearsal one morning at South Coast Repertory, adapting her memoir “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones” has been a challenge — and not just because of the three-hour daily commute from home in Pasadena to Costa Mesa.
“I feel more exposed than in any book I’ve ever written and in any show I’ve ever done,” she says. “Literally the saddest moments of my life are in this play.”
Loh is known for many things: one-woman shows such as “Aliens in America” and “Sugar Plum Fairy,” books including “A Year in Van Nuys” and “Mother on Fire,” the radio segments “The Loh Life” and “The Loh Down on Science,” and essays in publications like the Atlantic, where she is a contributing editor. Her career has been marked by disarming, usually self-deprecating frankness: She wins laughs by exposing feelings and failings the rest of us don’t like to admit.
She adapted the material into a one-woman show, “The B**** Is Back,” which ran last summer at the Broad Stage. Now comes a new play, “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” which is premiering this weekend at South Coast Rep. Directed by Lisa Peterson, the production stars Loh, Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt.
It’s early in the morning, and Loh, wearing a black leather jacket (a splurge, she admits) over jeans and a Goodwill sweater, says she’s exhausted. Her voice is a little husky. She jumps from topic to topic so rapidly that she leaves sentences and even words unfinished. But the headlong rush of her thoughts is captivating and hilarious, bristling with an array of allusions and insights: No matter how tired she may be, this woman can work a room.
When she submitted the idea of adapting “Madwoman” to the Sundance Institute Theatre Program’s Theatre Lab at Mass MOCA (a residency program that supports the development of new work), Loh had a vague notion of the kind of show she wanted.
She recalls thinking: “What I’d really like is to write a ‘Vagina Monologues’ or ‘Love, Loss, and What I Wore,’ or preferably ‘Menopause: The Musical.’ You’ll have three to five ladies, you can rotate casts. They’ll do bits like ‘Bloating,’ ‘Night Sweats,’ whatever. Everyone will laugh. I will be beloved. I will sit home. It will run forever. I will collect checks. I just want to be sort of funny, sort of warm, sort of likable, big button, big applause, and then we go home.”
When her project was accepted by Sundance in 2013, she was paired with director Peterson and the dramaturge Janice Paran, who pushed her to go deeper into the uncomfortable parts of her story. She was doing a bit for them about how she fell in love with her manager of 10 years during a road trip to Burning Man. It happened during a sandstorm, when she was dehydrated, and it was “like this Merchant Ivory movie experience” that took both parties by surprise.
“They go, ‘Well, how did you tell your husband about the affair?’” Loh recalls. “I had never told anyone that story, and it’s so painful. A whole part of the play — you’ll see — came out of my trying to explain to them how that went down."
As a performer from an essentially comedic background, Loh says, she worries about presenting herself as unlikable.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
“This is really warts and all,” she says. “You almost run the risk of going, ‘Oooh, I’m not going follow this person here.’ That’s the hard part of being transgressive. You just want to host a fun party and then high-five, but this is like, we go through a tunnel.”
She mentions a scene in which her character and her new boyfriend, named Charlie in the play, go to couples therapy. Charlie reminds her that modern relationships are about mutual support. “And I go, ‘Honestly, that feels very unsexy. I don’t want mutual support. I want you to take care of me like I’m Jackie O. and you’re Maurice Tempelsman. Hold the umbrella for me when I get done with it. I guess I want more of a valet parker or a spa.”
Philip Himberg, the producing artistic director of Sundance Theatre Lab, told her, “I really don’t like you in that scene.” She says she is still rewriting it.
Of course she can’t rewrite what happened, and she is aware that the story itself could upset people.
“If you look at American pop culture, the only well-loved book where a married mom commits infidelity is ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ — and it begins when she’s several decades dead, conveniently dead, and she did it for four days and then went back to her marriage. The guy wrote her these letters, and she just returned them. Why? Leave the farm! No one cares! The kids are up and out, your husband is into weighing heifers. Go to Spain, order off the tapas menu!”
“America,” she goes on, “doesn’t really want to hear about a married mom having an affair, blowing up her marriage...” She breaks off with a laugh. “Actually when I started telling it, I found there’s a surprising amount of people who do want to hear it.”
Some people do like it, Loh says, when the mask falls away and someone admits that the “perfect” marriage isn’t, that “we both have our different laptops open, and we don’t even talk anymore ... and I haven’t exercised in six months, and I don’t plan to. That’s why I’m wearing stretchy jeans.”
Even on Facebook, people rarely say, “I’m just really sad today. Here’s the remains of the bag of kettle chips I just ate.” Instead, she says, it’s always, “Look at my dog!”
She describes the goal of her work as “creating a space where people can just be human,” but even so, it isn’t easy for her to achieve the necessary honesty. She recalls submitting about six drafts of the “Madwoman” memoir to her editor at Norton because she was trying not to talk about the affair.
“I was struggling with wanting to be the mom next door, who you like and you’re on the same page with,” she says. “So I wrote the whole book without even mentioning the fact that I blew up my life and was kicked out of my house, which is kind of a major detail.” By the sixth draft, she had gotten those details in, but she knew she was opening herself up to opprobrium, especially because she and her ex-husband have two daughters.
“Nobody blows up their life at 46 because they fall madly in love. Although now that I’ve told the story,” she says, interrupting herself again, “you’d be surprised how many people actually do.”
Including other actors in her new play is a departure for someone known for one-woman shows. The idea emerged at Sundance, she says. Aaron and Holt play multiple roles.
“Sometimes they’re my daughters, sometimes they’re my mother and my sister, sometimes they’re my ex-husband and Charlie, and sometimes they’re drunk divorced people at a pool party,” Loh says. “There are different layers of reality and layers of intimacy, and sometimes maybe I’m a slightly unreliable narrator. The hope is that you’ll always be seeing a new rhythm, and you’ll never know what’s coming next.”
Loh’s friends and relatives have had to make their own peace with appearing in her work. When asked how they’ll react to seeing themselves in “Madwoman,” she runs down a list: “My sister has long been a character. My daughters haven’t seen this piece yet, and that will be the biggest thing, because they always see my work. Charlie, since he’s being played by Caroline Aaron, whom he adores, it’s kind of a treat for him. My brother doesn’t really even know he’s in it.”
“There’s some unfinished business,” she says. “I wish you hadn’t asked that question! But nobody comes off badly except for me — and a couple of the divorced parents at the pool party.”