Please Credit: Steve Wagner Photography
Zombie fires and fire thunderstorms. Flooded subways and elevators. Snownados, firenados and mosquito-nados. Super typhoons. Polar vortexes. Heat domes. We are surrounded by ever-more-exotic environmental disasters devastating more and more of our world. So why not indulge in an ecological comedy, one where the jokes end not in a self-satisfied chortle but a silent, rictus sneer.
That's what awaits you in the darkly amusing "Hurricane Diane" by Madeleine George. In this excellent production at Dobama Theatre, the gags land effectively but also amplify the larger theme: that we are destroying paradise by paying more attention to our individual, transitory wants than the overwhelming needs of the biomass that sustains us.
It is narrated by none other than Dionysus, the goddess (in this telling) of agriculture, wine and song who has been chilling in New Jersey in the guise of a butch lesbian permaculture gardener named Diane. In her opening monolog, Diane fondly remembers her heyday, those heady times eons ago when she could ride into a town astride a leopard-bull hybrid, "if there was one available," and inspire throngs of delirious followers to her side. This is playwright George's take on The Bacchae by Euripides, turning that tragedy into a tragi-comic look at the mess we've made of the natural glories we were given.
Diane has been quiet for centuries but has now decided to recruit as her acolytes four suburban housewives who live on a Red Bank cul-de-sac, using sexual charm, a collection of godly skills and a fierce determination to rescue nature, one tidy yard at a time. Among her four targets, the toughest nut to crack is Carol, a woman determined to get what she wants from this gardener—specifically, a wrought iron accent bench for her backyard. Diane sniffs that she doesn't do furniture and instead suggests a botanical riot of pawpaw trees, milk vetch, natural groundcovers, companion plantings—and no more freaking lawns.
Meanwhile, Carol's three neighbors who live in identical houses (represented on stage by one sleek, upscale kitchen) show up to sort out their own landscaping dreams with this oddly confident and opinionated gardener. Beth, who initially desires a backyard "fairy garden," is a petite and seemingly fragile bit of fluff whose husband ghosted her. As played by Natalie Green, she is a nervous and diffident woman who vibrates with such erotic intensity that she might explode if justled ever so slightly.
Rene (Colleen Longshaw) is a Black woman, formerly in a lesbian relationship, and editor at HGTV Magazine, where she doles out comfy lifestyle tips. But she has a gleam in her eye for her pre-suburban life. The wild card in this younger version of the Golden Girls is Pam, a no-nonsense, wine-sipping Italian gal who happily admits to having daily sex with her husband "to keep from, you know, hating his guts." Lara Mielcarek, who crafts Pam as a cross between Fran Drescher and a young Livia Soprano, has the best lines and does the most with them.
In the key role of Diane, Aimee Collier is a droll and compelling presence, showing just enough of her sensual nature that has been simmering for lo these many centuries. And Lana Sugarman puts just enough steel in her presence as Carol to stand up to the life-force that Diane embodies. But they each could bring a bit more edge and clarity to their personas, to set up the finale and make those sparks burn a bit brighter.
Playwright George treats the first two thirds of this play as a sitcom (in the best sense of that term), with snappy set-ups and punchlines that deliver. But it's all in service to the last third, where a huge storm, woman-focused passion, and a surprise are unleashed while their world, just like the set itself, slowly disincorporates. It's a slam bang conclusion, aided by some sweet effects from Jill Davis (scenic), Kevin Ducho (lights) and Megan "Deets" Culley (sound). Particularly arresting is a frenzied dance where the women's bodies throw green shadows on the floor. Under the well-paced direction of Shannon Sindelar, the actors create a tight ensemble that produces magic all their own.
Is abandoning ourselves to an ecstatic delirium inspired by a goddess of nature, nookie and wine the best way to handle the dire situation we're in? Well nothing else has worked, so why the hell not!
Through February 13 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.