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Unconventional Women Cross the Generational Divide in 'Herland'

This National New Play Network premiere at Moxie Theatre recognizes the struggles that young and old have in common


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Loie Gail, Rhona Gold, Christine Cervas Nathanson, Jill Drexler, and Meg Stoll Tron in Herland at Moxie Theatre | Photo by Daren Scott

I have a lot of sympathy for marketing people. They often have the unenviable task of picking out the most striking images with the broadest appeal from the work they’re selling, regardless of how representative those are of the work as a whole. Job One is to get butts in seats—once you’ve got a captive audience you can tell them whatever not-conventionally-marketable story you want, hoping any mild sense they have of being baited and switched is outweighed by the merit of what was impossible to capture in a poster or three-minute trailer.

To wit: The picture we chose to headline this review looks just like most of Moxie Theatre’s own marketing for Herland. Septuagenarian women rocking out like the E Street Band! That’s funny and unique! And the synopsis given is equally quirky: Jean has no intention of going into a retirement home, so she hires a high school intern to help her brainstorm and design a utopian feminist alternative for herself and her two best friends. It sounds almost like speculative fiction—like the 1915 novel of the same name that inspires her—and paired with these star-spangled promos, you’d be forgiven for expecting something madcap and magical realist at the very least.

But—and this may count as mild spoilers, but the real nature of the play is strong and compelling, so it’s worth it—the Springsteen act is a single dream sequence in a narrative otherwise grounded in realism, and the utopian plot is just one hook in a story whose pleasures are simpler and derive entirely from personality. I get it, though. It’s harder to sell a realistic, character-driven play with still photos of seniors sitting around talking, no matter how sharp and consistently funny the dialogue is.

The fun of Herland comes from seeing how much these women recognize in each other across generations, and how freeing that feeling is—young and old each giving the other permission to live openly and laugh loudly, making their own decisions and their own mistakes.

Netflix’s Grace and Frankie provides a good comparison. Its elevator pitch is simple and intriguing: odd couple Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have to rely on each other when their husbands announce that they’re in love and intend to get married. Starting from that how’re-they-gonna-do-this premise, the lasting appeal of that show comes from seeing their characters develop, splashing new color, life, wit, and surprises into mainstream audience expectations of Hollywood roles for women over age 60.

The trio of Herland are enjoyable in the same way: Jean (Rhona Gold) makes up for a sometimes-tenuous grasp of the modern world by enlisting high school senior Natalie (Christine Cervas Nathanson), who’s eager to flex her professional ambitions and command of the feminist lexicon, defining the previously ineffable discontentedness Jean now sees when looking back on her life. Living for so long in her husband’s shadow, forever denied a place to share what brought him the most happiness—his Springsteen cover band—Jean is seizing this opportunity to at last decide the future on her own terms.

Along for the ride are Jean’s two best friends, Terry (Loie Gail), who realized she was gay only after retiring and is wondering how on earth to navigate the dating landscape now, and Louise (Jill Drexler), who feels both proud and defensive about her life decisions, having owned a successful business, and remained childless, through an age when both went directly against the grain.

Jill Drexler, Loie Gail, and Rhona Gold in Herland at Moxie Theatre | Photo by Daren Scott

The fun of Herland comes from seeing how much these women recognize in each other across generations, and how freeing that feeling is—young and old each giving the other permission to live openly and laugh loudly, making their own decisions and their own mistakes. Later acts return to Natalie in college and then preparing to graduate it, growing into a stronger sense of her own identity—accompanied for a time by Becca (Meg Stoll Tron), who gives her both a contemporary to air painful memories with (in a beautifully done monologue that should lance heartache to the core of anyone who’s ever felt the cruel whiplash of secret love followed by public rejection) and a stinging lesson in the limits of how much personal development we can expect others to accompany us on.

I suppose all of this is a longwinded way of saying that the five characters of Herland are so well written and compelling that the idealistic hook and dream imagery become almost incidental—if they help to bring people in, fantastic, but then it’s a pleasure just to hang out with these friends and listen to them talk.

Grace McLeod is the youngest playwright ever to receive one of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premieres,” which means she gets to work directly with the cast and crew here and when the play also debuts in Chicago and Los Angeles later this year. NNPN couldn’t have made a better choice, and Moxie has yet to disappoint.

 

Herland, directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn
At Moxie Theatre through February 17
Tickets at moxietheatre.com

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