Review: Loh’s likability at the forefront of Berkeley Rep’s ‘Madwoman in the Volvo’

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(L to R) Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt and Caroline Aaron star in “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” at Berkeley Rep, a play based on Loh’s memoir of the same name. (Photo by Debora Robinson)

How special is Sandra Tsing Loh?

Well, so special that she is able to explain how she was married with two very young daughters when she started an affair with her best bud and manager Charles, a man who was married himself.

In the hands of most everyone else, it might make the rest of the show downright cringeworthy. That’s a lot for an audience to move past. But Loh, with her disarming nature, self-deprecating charm and bumbling besties, comes off so much differently – honest, human, raw and warm.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” based on Loh’s 2014 memoir, has its flaws. Some moments drop at your doorstep but then disappear into the ether just as quickly, yet there is no denying that Loh is a wonderful performer. She is not one that will disarm you with mad acting skills. But what she has in spades is honesty and vulnerability, a woman that spins a yarn with a twinkle in her eye and a sparkle in her heart.

Director Lisa Peterson has a firm grasp of the style of the play – presentationally Brechtian, a woman who has also worked with famed theatre and comedy troupe Culture Clash. The show darts in and out of moments with aplomb. There is the hilariously effective Burning Man, which is kind of the epicenter for Loh’s oncoming midlife crisis. She and her buddies take it all in – the nudity, the weedity and the freedom to be. Also, as an approach to menopause, she comes to realize that once it’s reached, a woman’s hormones return to their younger, hornier self.

What this does is beautifully sets up Loh’s conflicted nature and the totality of her life. Is there more out there than the safety of her safe marriage? And if there is a voice inside, one that is saying you have an obligation to be fulfilled, must you listen?

She juxtaposes this conflict with a beautiful story of the love and loyalty of her brother and his wife. There too were some serious conflicts. Watch how Loh crafts the story with gentle pace and tender touches. Her eyes get a little bigger, and she truly commands the space, making the intimate Peet’s Theatre feel even more so. Bearing witness to their marriage, warts and all, puts her in awe of their struggle, and what sickness and health really looks like.

These highlight the strengths of Loh, but the play was also not without its faults. There are certainly moments where a story may pop up, and is fixed within a few seconds or never actually explored, which is also reflected in the abrupt and somewhat awkward ending of the play. I don’t need everything necessarily wrapped up prettily in a big box of denouement, but the rushing of the story completion fell a bit flat.

These faults aside, the show is full of poignancy with lots of delicious levity. And that is certainly assisted mightily by her two costars, Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt. Together, bouncing in and out of Loh’s life, they complete those highs and lows with broad characterizations.

Aaron and Holt play everyone – kids, mothers, men, potential men and fellow menopausers. And they are funny as all get out. Belly laughs are plentiful as the hormones rage against the dying of a light.

As a play that does plenty to focus on a hybrid of styles, from stand up comedy to poignant monologues, Peterson does a great job of fusing it all together. It certainly helps to have Loh’s descriptive words as the basis for Peterson’s tableaus. There is also nothing terribly fancy about the scenic design, created with effective minimalist touches by Rachel Hauck. It’s a set that focuses less on bells and whistles, allowing the audience to focus more on their own imagination and imagery.

Of all the things the play does, or may not do, one of the most important is that it brings the absolute likability of Loh into the forefront. She comes off as a sweetheart of a woman.

Well, come to think of it, those who celebrated this past presidential election may not fully agree with that assessment.

This play may serve lots of purposes, telling a good story at the heart of those goals. But Loh also wants you to know that she’s there for you if you’re hurting.

And she has the free hugs, Ricola cough drops and brightly colored balloons to prove it.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “The Madwoman in the Volvo”
Written by Sandra Tsing Loh
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Featuring Loh, Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt
The Word: Loh’s words, assisted by the hilarity of Aaron and Holt, make for an evening of theatre that just may cure your Trump blues.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Jan. 15th
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street at Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94702
Tickets range from $60 – $75, which includes a beverage
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org

One Reply to “Review: Loh’s likability at the forefront of Berkeley Rep’s ‘Madwoman in the Volvo’”

  1. My criticism of this play is informed by my 15 years as a presenter of solo (and similar form) theater in SF, in venues both larger and smaller than Berkeley Rep. As ‘likable’ as Sandra may be, the play is NOT. The kale references are hackneyed, and her L.A./actor’s-world-view comes off as tone-deaf to the fact that she isn’t playing to a SoCal audience. More cringe-worthy are the repeated references to Burning Man that don’t ring true for one who has attended Burning Man multiple times. She uses BM tropes as trite punch lines to her ‘midlife crisis’, seemingly clueless about her lack of authenticity. My companions, also Burning Man attendees, groaned whenever she spewed another mis-informed stereotype of the Burning Man event, such as talking to the front row and assuming no one in the ‘high-priced seats’ had ever been to Burning Man; it was ‘stoners in the back row’ who attended. Aside from that, I was certainly expecting (as a menopausal woman myself) to enjoy at least a few laughs from this seasoned performer/polished play. Most of the time I felt it was trying too hard: to be earnest, to be poignant, to be funny…I didn’t laugh once! Berkeley Rep may have a well-deserved reputation for high-quality progressive plays – but this is not one of them! I suggest you spend your theater dollars on an up-and-coming performance which may be uneven, but you can forgive that with a newer performer – this tired and stereotype-filled banality was not worth $75, and makes me question who at BRT thought this was up to their standards.
    I wrote this review after seeing many positive reviews in the press, and none that found fault. The Chronicle has the traditional Little Man sitting up and clapping. Bay Area theater criticism has truly been diluted/dumbed-down since the days of Gerald Nachman and Rob Hurwitt.

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