Sandra Tsing Loh stages her madness at the Pasadena Playhouse
Midlife crisis? When it hits, some buy a new sports car. Sandra Tsing Loh took a somewhat different route.
“I went to Burning Man,” she said, “and then I had an affair and then I blew my life up, and then I got divorced, and all this other stuff happened.”
Among the “other stuff”: a hormonal roller coaster ride into menopause, and, in 2014, the publication of Loh’s memoir, “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones,” chronicling the whole messy, darkly humorous and revelatory journey she took toward freedom and self-discovery.
In January, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa premiered “The Madwoman in a Volvo,” Loh’s stage adaptation of what she describes as her “kind of transgressive tale.” The critically acclaimed production, directed by Obie Award-winning Lisa Peterson, a major collaborator in its development, is now running at the Pasadena Playhouse through June 26.
With a cast of three, the show is a departure for Loh, who has made her mark mining her life in such ferocious and funny solo narrative performances as “Aliens in America,” “Bad Sex with Bud Kemp,” “Mother on Fire” and “I Worry.” In “Madwoman,” Loh is joined on stage by Caroline Aaron and Antaeus Co. member Shannon Holt, two veteran actors with extensive Broadway and regional theater credits, who play multiple roles.
“Sometimes it’s straight storytelling,” Loh said of the show’s format, “sometimes we go into scenes and everybody’s a different character. Sometimes they are other versions of me, voices inside my head, and they play men and children, too. We think of it less as a star and two accompanists, than in terms of almost like a rock band, where everybody plays different instruments.”
“Madwoman” begins with Loh and some fellow middle-aged friends trekking to the Nevada desert to soak up the wild and creative spirit of the Burning Man Festival, losing their inhibitions in a bacchanal topped by a freak sandstorm.
This is “the inciting incident” for all that follows, said Loh, adding that the production’s set, designed by Rachel Hauck, “is fantastic. It has these sort of steel girders that look like metallic Burning Man sculptures and there are I don’t know how many pounds of sand” on the Playhouse stage.
In the aftermath, when the emotional fallout of a broken marriage has settled, Loh’s personal sandstorm hits with extremes of menopausal symptoms that she at first doesn’t recognize as such.
The word “menopause,” Loh said, “still carries these connotations of being old and dried up, and crepe-y, and you wear special orthopedic sandals. It still has those ‘move to the side of road, lady, you’re done,’ connotations. But I think that in my generation — I’m like a very youngish baby boomer, or an old Gen X-er — the idea that we’re growing a mustache or we’re going to have white Barbara Bush hair is, ‘oh, that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”
It was an essay that Loh wrote for The Atlantic in 2011 under the title “The Madness of Menopause, or The Bitch is Back,” that led to her memoir (although when it came to the book’s title, her publisher’s marketers warned her against using the word “menopause” in the title, or the subtitle, she said, telling her “that’s death’”).
The memoir in turn led not only to Loh’s new full-fledged play, but first to the cabaret-style solo show that preceded it, called “The Bitch is Back,” which premiered last year at the Broad Stage, and was inspired by Loh’s promotional “house party” book tour performances.
“I want to change the conversation about menopause,” Loh said. “Almost one in two American women are menopausal or post. That’s huge.” With increased life expectancy, many women are living into their eighth or ninth decade “and beyond,” Loh said, “so we’re only fertile during the middle third of our lives.” When what she calls “the estrogen cloud” lifts, “chemically, hormonally, we go back our pre-fertile stage. When your body isn’t in overdrive making these eggs anymore,” menopause can usher in “a new and interesting part of life. To me that’s freedom.”
(Informing her book and the show with the science of menopause, filtered through Loh’s signature humor and outrage, was a natural: Loh has a degree in physics from Caltech, teaches a course in science communication for graduate science students at UC Irvine, and her “The Loh Down on Science” commentaries are heard regularly on public radio station KPCC.)
Over “Madwoman’s” evolution from the page to the South Coast Repertory stage, the play received support at Sundance Theatre Lab, the Ojai Playwrights Conference, and Colorado’s Perry-Mansfield New Works Festival. About “25 percent” of its content is new material. “It covers the midlife blow up and all that entails,” Loh said, “but then it skips forward about two years, when my life stabilizes, but then these menopausal symptoms of depression and anxiety come down,” entailing, in part, desperate visits to a doctor and therapist.
Peterson, speaking by phone from Ashland where she was directing “Hamlet” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, said that while Loh’s memoir provided the template, “we were looking for events, choices … that would be part of a compelling story. We read through the book to sort of see not so much where there was visual opportunity, but where there was emotional heat, and what really felt like part of the core story Sandra is telling. Then we would ask her questions and she would write new material.” (Loh noted that some incidents in the book — couples therapy and “the divorced parent conga line pool party,” for example — have been magnified for the stage.)
And yes, “it’s sort of a woman’s play,” said Loh, “but we’ve had men come and just laugh because they now understand what makes their wives so crazy. But also some middle-aged men are crying, remembering their childhood and what happened with their moms. Still, even though “Madwoman” “goes to some dark places,” she said, “audiences seem to find it really hilarious, and sometimes, the darkest parts are the funniest. At the end, it’s quite celebratory.”
Overall, Loh said, “I’m trying to relook at the quote, unquote, midlife crisis. It’s not necessarily the worst thing to have a transformative change if that will make the next decades of your life more meaningful.”
What: “The Madwoman in the Volvo”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends June 26.
Tickets: $25 to $77; premium seating, $125.
More info: (626) 356-7529, PasadenaPlayhouse.org