Review: In a Storm of Silliness, Theater Wit’s Hurricane Diane Demands That We Care About Climate Change

Dionysus/Diane has messages for us. The messages we continue to ignore about the serious dangers that climate change portends for our future—and more importantly, for the futures of our children and grandchildren. Yes, while we seethe with anger about SCOTUS decisions and the January 6 insurrection, playwright Madeline George wants us to get mad about climate change too. She’s right, of course.

Her 2019 play Hurricane Diane, directed by Jeremy Wechsler, is now on stage at Theater Wit. George’s premise is that if she presents us with a climate change message wrapped in a flamboyant comedy, we’ll listen. And so it starts. The Greek god Dionysus (or Bacchus, if you prefer the Roman version) descends to earth as a butch lesbian gardener, determined to attract acolytes and form a cult focused on saving the earth. Upon her arrival on stage, Diane (Kelli Simpkins) Is swathed in white satin, wrapped in a leopard skin, and crowned with leaves and grapes. And she’s here to tell us of the danger we’re in: “It’s eleven fucking forty-five on the cosmic clock!”’

She chides us, directly: “You‘ve been busy, haven’t you? Mining and stripping and slashing and burning and generally despoiling the green earth that gave you life. It’s not like I haven’t been aware of your misdeeds, I’ve been watching you fuck shit up for hundreds of years.”

Diane/Dionysus has chosen a perfect locale for her first recruitment campaign: a cul de sac of four identical homes in Red Bank, New Jersey, a community like others along the east coast recently pummeled by other named hurricanes (we remember Sandy). The four women could be the cast of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Monmouth County.” *

Diane begins her campaign by marketing her landscaping services and lesbian lust to each of them, usually getting some resistance—at first. Diane’s preferred natural garden is a fragrant paradise with “a lush green understory, teeming with beneficial insects, worms, beetles …  native groundcovers: hognut and bee balm, foxglove and awl-fruit, hawkweed and bladderwort and milk vetch.“ No lawns. Diane rips out lawns. 

Carol Fleischer (Carolyn Kruse), a tightly controlled corporate-compliance officer, wants a garden with themes drawn from HGTV magazine. Most of all, she wants a wrought-iron accent bench. “I don’t do furniture,” Diane replies.

Pam Annunziata (Lori Myers) wants her garden to reflect her Italian heritage with “my own Italian garden exactly like in the mural outside Delfini’s, you know the deli on Front Street? …. with the hanging vines, the roses, the fountain, the whole nine.” 

Renee Shapiro-Epps (Jazmin Corona) is the first to understand Diane’s landscaping vision; she’s an editor at HGTV Magazine. She enthusiastically buys into Diane’s concept and yearns for a forest permaculture in her back yard.

Beth Wann (Aniesa Hicks) tells Diane she wants a fairy garden “just like it says in the poem” with a leafy bower and “the kinds of flowers that attract fairies. So I can lay my head among the mosses while they sing me to sleep.” Beth’s husband has deserted her and she’s the first to succumb to Diane’s lecherous charms.

Hurricane Diane is totally silly with a broad array of sure-to-please laugh lines. Wechsler gets distinctive characterizations from the five actors, with Simpkins using her comedy chops to good advantage. (I’ve seen her in several serious roles—like Men in BoatsWe’re Gonna Be Okay and The Gulf—and I can only say, she should play comedy more often.) The 90-minute play moves along briskly, using the single kitchen setting to represent the four identical homes with prop changes and  landscapes scrolling by outside the back windows. There’s far more to the scenic design but no spoilers here. The clever set design is by Joe Schermoly with lighting by Piper Kirchhofer and sound design by Joyce Ciesil. Mara Blumenthal and Maddy Low are responsible for the creative costume design.  

Madeline George’s plays include Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligenceproduced by Theater Wit in 2018 and 2015. 

*Monmouth County is an important county in New Jersey—for a certain narrow sector of the population. In addition to Red Bank, other key place names are Freehold, Asbury Park, Long Branch, West Long Branch, Belmar, Colts Neck, Manusquan, Rumson, Matawan and Ocean Township. West Long Branch is the home of Monmouth University (location of the respected Monmouth Polling Institute and site of several Bruce Springsteen Symposiums that I’ve participated in). If those names mean nothing to you, it’s only because you’re not a Springsteen fan. 

Hurricane Diane has been extended through August 14 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $25-$36 and are on sale now at TheaterWit.org or by calling the Theater Wit box office, 773-975-8150. Run time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn over nose and mouth while you’re in the building.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.