“Madwoman in the Volvo” Drives Us to the Desert
by Svea Vikander
In her show “The Madwoman in the Volvo” at Berkeley Rep, Sandra Tsing Loh tells uncomfortable stories that need to be told. Accompanied by only two other cast members—the remarkably fluid Caroline Aaron and a slyly neurotic Shannon Holt—Tsing Loh dissects and dismantles our most prized stereotypes about middle age, menopause, and motherhood.
A woman is not expected to go to Burning Man, have an affair with a married man, and leave her well-tended rose bushes for an inflatable mattress on the floor of a dingy apartment. But this is what Tsing Loh did. The inimitable NPR personality and stage performer left her husband for her long-time best friend and stage manager, after a drug-fueled 24 hours at Burning Man. And then she wrote a memoir, The Madwoman in the Volvo, upon which this show is based.
Tsing Loh begins with a roar, inviting the audience to release their political and personal frustrations in a unified, minute-long scream. She screams, too. Through 90 minutes (no intermission!), Tsing Loh and her compatriots fully invest their bodies, hearts, and voices in the most intense experiences of her 40s. Aaron and Holt play a rotating cast of characters, including Tsing Loh’s ex-husband, her lover, and her therapist. In their primary roles as her female friends, they give advice—”join my crone reading group!”—and confessions—”I’m getting an affair for my 45th birthday!” They serve as both filter and megaphone for the harsh judgments of society at large.
Most of the stage is covered in three inches of sand, reminding us throughout the play of the playa on which the unraveling began. Tsing Loh delivers her monologues on a black thrust stage, inadvertently tracking sand onto it as the show continues. It’s an acute visual reminder of the inevitable messiness of, well, every human endeavor.
The sand is only one way that we are reminded of the dryness of the desert, which seems to serve as a metaphor for a certain kind of female fierceness. Before she leaves for Burning Man, Tsing Loh’s husband tells her to “Remember to keep hydrating.” Instead, she ingests mushrooms and confesses her love for her best friend. Tsing Loh finds it impossible to pee in the desert, and she describes the sensation of her urine being “sucked back in, up my chakras, into my hypothalamus.” In short, hydration becomes the least of her worries. At another point, she describes her ex-husband as the kind of man who would rather re-tile the roof than talk to her; but, as she muses later, at least the roof gets re-tiled. He wants to protect her from the elements. He doesn’t realize she is one.
America has established a simple narrative for the implosion of middle-class, middle-aged identity. The mid-life crisis is identified through its flashy car, its toupee, and its younger woman, because the crisis-afflicted is always male. American mid-life crisis is resolved through a new marriage, or a return to the wife, because the crisis-affected is always female. Our understanding of this crisis is undergirded by an understanding that the male ego is fragile because these things happen.
A woman at middle-age has nowhere to strike the match when she needs to burn down the house. In a culture that mandates maternal bliss (she has kids! She should be happy!), the very fact of her distress is verboten. The double standard creates the chaos in which Tsing Loh finds herself. She is thrown back, for a moment or a year, into extended adolescence, romantic crises, changing jobs, and moving from one apartment to another. We have seen stories like this before—Anna Karenina comes to mind—but they follow the arc of tragedy, the ruining of a good woman.
Tsing Loh presents her experiences as the natural consequences of a real biological and social transition. She is committed to working it out, laughing about it, engaging with the issues beyond being considered a “ruined” woman. Narratives like hers and like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying do not carve out mere niches. They build out a railway trestle for women’s biographical stories.
“The Madwoman in the Volvo” by Sandra Tsing Loh. Directed by Lisa Peterson, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, CA, through January 15, 2017. Info: berkeleyrep.org
Cast: Caroline Aaron, Shannon Holt, Sandra Tsing Loh