Hurricane Diane: Staging an Agro-Revolution, in the Jersey Suburbs

Becca Blackwell in Hurricane Diane. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Becca Blackwell in Hurricane Diane. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In Madeleine George’s fanciful and funny but ultimately sobering new play, a Greek god returns after centuries of shape-shifting to face a formidable challenge—inside a kitchen in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

It would be unsporting to reveal which the four suburban matrons we meet in Hurricane Diane emerges as the fiercest nemesis to the title character, who tells us she has been “called by many names—Bacchus, Bromius, Dionysus,” but is at present passing herself off as a permaculture gardener. But it shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler at this point to mention that Diane is pointedly androgynous—”a butch charm factory,” as George describes her in the stage directions,”with that combination of swagger and stillness particular to masculine-of-center women.”

The swagger is made irresistibly buoyant by Becca Blackwell, a trans performer who prefers the pronouns “they” and “them” to the more individual, gender-specific kind. Under Leigh Silverman’s witty, vigorous direction, Blackwell’s Diane does seem to possess a bigger spirit than one person could contain; the cherubic redhead is not so much god-like as overflowing with human, and humane, impulses. The ravages of climate change have brought her to her current mission; “It’s eleven f—king forty-five,” she shouts, before assuring us: “It’s going to feel amazing to save the world.”

Before accomplishing this, though, Diane must seduce that quartet of women. The “live, frenzied, Bacchic realness” this undercover god plans to eventually spread from sea to shining sea involves sex as much as agricultural reform, and the play’s comic (to a point) conceit is that the rote married lives of these ladies reflect a drift from nature as much as their manicured lawns.

Though it’s not immediately obvious which of the gals will succumb, or how soon, we get a sense of their varied personalities as they gather early on, over coffee, natch. Wispy, soft-spoken Beth, whose own lawn has become an unkempt deer magnet since her husband dumped her, would seem the ripest prey. Kate Wetherhead is marvelous in the role, giving her a hilarious, deadpan passivity and credulity that could pass for dimness, but eventually revealing more to Beth in a heartbreaking monologue that recounts her wedding night.

Not that any of these women should be judged by first appearances. Renee, an elegant editor at HGTV Magazine who arrives for coffee in “chic Eileen Fisher neutrals” (costume designer Kaye Voyce has the benefit of such specific instructions in the text) turns out to have a lesbian fling in her past, and a serious jones for permaculture, which she approvingly deems “very DIY.” Pam, making her entrance in a tiger-print wrap dress, has an accent that could have been lifted from “The Sopranos” and a temper to match, but Danielle Skraastad gives her a warmth that transcends caricature, just as Michelle Beck reveals the vulnerability and cunning under Renee’s cool grace and New Agey blather.

Then there is Carol, neat as a pin in her close-tailored Talbots (for work) and Land’s End casuals, who adores her neighborhood and her neighbors—or so she insists—and first meets Diane armed with a folder bursting with HGTV clippings. “I want natural but neat, special but typical,” Carol says crisply, but with a ready smile, after praising Diane’s expertise. When Diane suggests a more unorthodox strategy, Carol—played by a superb Mia Barron—is predictably vexed: “What would the girls think of me?” Diane, too, is stumped. “You’re women,” she points out, “but you refer to yourself as girls.”

In the locals’ exchanges with Diane, and with each other, George is examining, with lustrous wit but also some seriousness, how the trappings of first-world civilization can impact people generally and women in particular. The playwright also reminds us, as Diane progresses, how flimsy these forces can be against greater, more enduring ones. The neighborhood women refer at length to a storm, presumably Hurricane Sandy, that utterly disrupted their lives, and at the same time forged a tight bond between them.

Will Diane break this bond? Or is her purpose to spare them more destruction? Or are both true? A heady climactic scene that engages Rachel Hauck’s relatively spare but vivid set and a final, jarring tonal shift offer suggestions, but George’s purpose, unlike her heroine’s, is not to proselytize. Still, in its bounty of entertainment, Hurricane Diane offers plenty of food for thought.

Hurricane Diane opened February 24, 2019, at New York Theatre Workshop and runs through March 10. Tickets and information: nytw.org

 

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Hurricane Diane: Staging an Agro-Revolution, in the Jersey Suburbs