Stage

Blown Over By the Production In Hurricane Diane

Jasmine Renee Thomas, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy,  Kasi Love, and Elizabeth Marshall Black in Hurricane Diane
Jasmine Renee Thomas, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Kasi Love, and Elizabeth Marshall Black in Hurricane Diane Photo by Tasha Gorel
In Madeleine George's comedy with a message play, Hurricane Diane, it's the Greek Demi-God Dionysus (here focusing on his realms of vegetation and ecstasy) who has all the superpowers.

Returned to Earth disguised as the charming butch lesbian permaculture gardener Diane, he plans to save the world from environmental ruin using godly powers of seduction to recruit humans to his cause. Starting with four women in upscale suburban New Jersey.

Once they’ve become enraptured, Diane can insist the women, and eventually, all of mankind, give up their beloved artificial environments — neatly manicured lawns, shopping malls, Panera Bread locations — and embrace a sustainable, small-scale, natural environment.

But while Diane/Dionysus may have the authority of the Gods in this amusingly cute and light on the preachiness one-act play, the true power of Hurricane Diane (now on stage at Rec Room Arts) comes from this glorious, firing on all cylinders, get your butt down to see this show, production.

It’s almost hard to know where to start when singing the praises of this show, but as always, everything good (or not) ultimately comes down to direction, so let's start there.

A past Houston Press nominee for Best Direction (for her finely-tuned effort in, From White Plains), Lily Wolff once again shows astute control, never allowing the absurdity of the premise to collapse in on itself. Especially when it comes to the treatment of Diane (Kasi Love), who spends most of the play talking directly to us as she hatches and attempts to implement her plan.

Wisely, Wolff takes the deity down a notch in these fourth-wall-breaking moments, positioning Diane off and in front of the stage itself, creating a more intimate and comedy club-like environment. But Diane is a God after all, so Wolff gives her a microphone to use periodically, but it’s for smartly particular sound emphasis without any whiff of supernatural triteness.

This is Love’s acting debut (she has spent 15-plus years working behind the stage) and it’s an assured and charismatic performance. Wolff may have guided Love to God-like status, but now we’re curious to see where else she might step out of the shadows and back on the stage.

As for the suburban women, who spend the entirety of the play in their identical subdivision sleek white marbled kitchens with French doors overlooking backyards (Stefan Azizi once again doing wonders with the small but mighty Rec Room space) I dare you to name another ensemble this season with more chemistry and natural comedic fizz.

Here Wolff knows she has four remarkable talents, capable of swinging between comedy and pathos with the precision of a paper cut. No need to over direct these actors, and Wolff accordingly employs a light hand.

We first meet Carol (a wonderfully clenched Jeanne Harris), an uptight, high-strung, appearances are everything pharmaceutical compliance officer who hoards HGTV magazines in the hope that one day she too will have the perfect editorial-worthy backyard. Not that she wants to go outside and enjoy it. She actually never wants to go outside.

While Carol's husband seems willfully absent in her life, her neighbor Beth (Elizabeth Marshall Black oozing slouchy misery) is recently single, abandoned by her husband, and unable to get it together. Why just look at her lawn! It hasn’t been mowed in twelve weeks, never mind that she might lose the house altogether as she has no marketable skills to staunch her financial bleeding.

Renee (Jasmine Renee Thomas oscillating wonderfully between wistfulness and indignity) lauds herself as the highest-ranking Black editor of a design magazine (Carol’s beloved HGTV magazine) and yet she’s also deeply dissatisfied with what she’s become. Holding back ideas around her risk-averse white colleagues out of fear of being seen as "angry", wistful for a past same-sex relationship, and itching to move the needle forward in her own backyard, Renee is ready to get back to realness on every front.

Lastly, there’s Pam (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy giving us Jersey Shore fabulousness), an American Italian housewife super-woman. She may not have deity powers, but out of the four neighbors and friends, she's the one that got them all through the last storm with her self-designed hurricane-proof basement and emergency supplies. She's loud, she's capable, she's brash and she tells it like it is, even if no one in her family ever listens to or takes care of what she wants and needs.
click to enlarge Jeanee Harris, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Jasmine Renee Thomas and Elizabeth Marshall Black in Hurricane Diane - PHOTO BY TASHA GOREL
Jeanee Harris, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Jasmine Renee Thomas and Elizabeth Marshall Black in Hurricane Diane
Photo by Tasha Gorel

A quick tip of the hat must be paid to Costume Designer Harri Horsley for perfectly nailing the looks these women don. From Carol's sensible heels and black cigarette pants to Renee's flowy soft tunics to Beth's mish-mash of whatever comfy clothes she's picked up off the floor, the outfits are perfect. However, none more so than the multitude of gloriously curve-hugging head-to-toe leopard ensembles Horsley gifts Pam. If leopard print could be a comedic actor, this may prove it.

Back to the ladies, all of whom George has written with gaping holes in their lives, vulnerabilities to be exploited. Perfect for Diane to take advantage of while on hire to redesign their backyards. Yes, it's a little creepy, this seducing/bedding of less than healthy/happy women, even if it is for the environment's sake. But then what Greek myth or God isn't creepy to some extent? It's just the way this genre cookie crumbles.
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How and why (or why not) Diane manages to lure the women over to the permaculture way of thinking and as acolytes to help globally spread the environmental gossip works just fine. George gives us some good fun and food for thought in these moments. “Why should I give up my creature comforts when comfort is all I have”, is the idea that cuts the deepest.

But really, these scenes feel secondary to the thrill we get just seeing the four women together laughing, talking, sharing, and even arguing at times.

Part of it’s the writing, George knows how to pepper these scenes with energetic dialogue. But really, it's thanks to Wolff and her cast that these moments are naturally funny and not simply a knock-off version of a Desperate Housewives episode.

If you’re wondering if the hurricane in the title of the play is simply a metaphor, it’s not. There is a storm brewing in this play, one that will define the efforts made by Diane and the choices the women make. And it’s here that the final praise lands.

We’re no strangers to depictions of storms in theaters, but Robert Meek (Sound Design) and Madeleine Reid (Lighting Design) truly wow us with their bombastic and lengthy effects. Narratively, this isn’t your regular storm and these two do it superb justice. If only their efforts weren't slightly watered down by one unnecessary and anticlimactic final scene.

But….quibbles.

To paraphrase Hamlet, often it is the play that’s the thing, and George’s work has merit for sure. But it turns out the real seduction in this Hurricane Diane is production, production, production. Go, laugh, have fun. And oh yeah, be better to the earth.

Hurricane Diane continues through May 28 at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. Visit recroomarts.org for tickets. $20-40.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman