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THEATER REVIEW Herland
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-03-23

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Playwright: Grace McLeod

At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: Redtwist.org 773-728-7529; $35-$40. Runs through: April 14<]

"When people ask us if we want to do something, it will be a real question! We can say 'no' or 'yes,' and they'll listen to us when we answer!" Following a wave of playwrights wringing their hands over adult children struggling with the question of what to do about grandma, Grace McLeod thinks it's high time to bring the grandmas themselves into the discussion.

What do McLeod's empty nesters want? Widowed Terry wants to explore her same-sex desires, spinster Louise wants a luxurious retirement, and divorced Jean knows only that she does not want to live in an eldercare facility. In order to forestall that sorry fate, she has hired an "intern"—teenaged Natalie, looking to do something "cool" before starting college—to help convert her family-sized house into a group home where the three lifelong friends can live as they please. Utopian ideals being, by their very name, unattainable, these lofty aspirations cannot escape compromises, but the pursuit thereof gradually brings all the women to the awareness and accomplishments necessary for independence, self-esteem and the courage to resist convention.

The premise of elderly women sharing a house may recall the 1985-92 television series Golden Girls, but what distinguishes the 21st-century version of post-menopausal sisterhood is not merely the easy acceptance of "unfeminine" traits (a preference for pantsuits over dresses, for example), but the absence of femme-assurance triggers coded into the dialogue. To be sure, the detritus of the ex-husbands' Springsteen cover band provides the tenacious dowagers with a rallying medley of The Boss' empowering anthems, but as implied by "Herland"—the title (derived from a Charlotte Perkins Gilman novel) bestowed on their retreat—sororal values triumph within this universe.

McLeod's rolling world-premiere play, with its delicate blend of comedy and crisis, offers juicy roles for a trio of AARP-eligible female actors, all but guaranteeing extensive regional revivals. Though the arc of the narrative could use some re-editing, director James Fleming and a dream-team cast—Kathleen Ruhl, Valerie Gorman, marssie Mancotti, Simran Bal and Deanalis Resto—never allow the playful moments (spit-takes, blackout scenes, Fiorucci-style fashions for the youngsters and a lip-synced "Born to Run" fantasy sequence) to eclipse the serious issues underlying the quest for your own identity, whatever your age.


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