Sandra Tsing Loh Shares—and Shares and Shares—in The Madwoman In the Volvo

If you were born a man, as defined by the lofty scientific definition of being yanked out of mommy equipped with a rooster and a pair of peanuts, one possible thought drifting through your mind about 10 minutes into The Madwoman In the Volvo might be:

“How the fuck do I get out of here?”

It’s not that Sandra Tsing Loh’s 90-ish-minute meditation on her midlife crisis isn’t frequently funny or brutally honest. It’s that her crisis is so talky and female-centric—involving menopause, eating one’s feelings, weight and appearance, relationship difficulties, and motherhood—that some men (and maybe even some women) may have a hard time caring about her genuine account of climbing up the hill to 50 and finding she’s losing her grip on what has mostly propelled that journey: herself.

Now, it’s not that men shouldn’t care about those issues. After all, as Loh explains early on, women between the ages of 45 and 65 are the largest demographic in America, and, at some point in every man’s life, he’s encountered one or two of them. And a frank conversation about the reality of menopause and the hormonal changes undergone by women before, during and after “the change” is the kind of thing that one doesn’t see often in the mainstream anything.

But provoking an honest, open dialogue about an issue that most men—hell, most people—probably don’t want to think about unless they’re experiencing it isn’t the same as writing an engaging play that opens a window into an all-too-familiar-but-seldom-talked-about experience endured by so many. And while Volvo is funny and compelling at times, Loh’s story is so steeped in Her journey and Her struggles and Her attempts to cope—or inability to cope—that, at times, it feels less like you’re an audience member being empowered with information and insight and more like a hostage confined in a private Facebook group for women. And that one chick just will not stop sharing. . . .

Channeling Dante, Loh (who wrote and stars as herself in the play, which is directed by the always-capable Lisa Peterson) begins the play by informing the audience that midway through her life’s journey, she found herself in dark woods. She then introduces two actresses (the excellent Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt) who will help relate her story (Loh, a regular contributor to NPR, is known theatrically for her one-person shows; while Volvo isn’t one, per se, its autobiographical, confessional structure is the next closest thing to it). When a member of her writer’s group, who is about to turn 50, announces that she wants to celebrate the milestone by attending Burning Man, the women gather in an RV, driven by Loh’s male agent, and head off to the playa. While watching the burning of the temple, Loh realizes she’s in love with her agent, which ignites the personal burning of her life. Complicating matters is that Loh soon misses her first period—and she isn’t pregnant.

To Loh’s enviable credit, she is painfully honest about what transpires. While she is both protagonist and antagonist, there’s no attempt to elicit sympathy through mawkish appeals. And she peppers everything with laughs, whether it’s a dreary dinner with her kids at Hometown Buffet or a hilarious account of going to a Fourth of July party for divorced parents.

But unless you’re invested in Loh’s story from the beginning—and make no mistake, this is her story—the frequent allusions to kale, gluten and the male Peter Pan complex can grow tiring. It’s not until she resurrects the shadow of her mother and relates in flashback her terrible descent from menopause into a long, deteriorating depression that someone else’s experience factors into the equation. But even then, her mother’s agony seems less about her mom and more about serving as a delayed wake-up call to Loh about the dire need to figure out a way to keep from following her path.

It’s the inability to connect her tale to a more universal mosaic that most stymies Loh’s story. There are glimpses, particularly toward the end, when Loh intimates that rather than menopause signaling women shifting into barren irrelevance, it’s more of a rekindling of feminine energy, a return to a time before puberty when they were not defined by society as merely reproductive vessels. That is a Big Idea, something any woman could relate to, as is an ever Bigger Idea, that age is merely a social construct and anyone at any time in their life can re-orient themselves to follow their passion.

Unfortunately, all of that is overshadowed by Loh’s diary-like account of her struggle. It may be true that, as Thoreau wrote, most men lead lives of quiet desperation. But it’s clear from Volvo that many a woman does as well. And it’s equally clear that some of us are just a bit louder and longer-winded about it.

The Madwoman In the Volvo at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. & 7:45 p.m. Through Jan. 24. $20-$77.

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