Redtwist Theatre drums up beats of resilience in 'Herland'
Updated: May 10, 2019
To this day our media, and Hollywood being its most public culprit, purposefully choose to ignore that women at the age of 50 and older have value and stories to be told. And of the few roles for older women that are available, they are reserved for only the most beloved of actresses. While I will rush to see what Glenn Close, Jessica Lange, or Cecily Tyson embark on next, there are many other older actresses who remain in the shadows having not been fortunate enough to build such a legacy to "prove" their worth and relevance.
Film and television writers could take a cue from playwright Grace McLeod in writing well-developed, feverishly fun, incredibly gifted roles for older women. In this National New Play Network world premiere, Redtwist Theatre's Herland is a welcomed gift that I wasn't expecting to receive, but was thankful to be given. Directed by James Fleming, the play is a tribute to friendships that stand the test of time, the power in acknowledging fear, and that self-acceptance is an ongoing, likely lifelong process.
After being married to a Bruce Springsteen cover band frontman leaves her on a sour note (as would anyone), Jean (Kathleen Ruhl) decides to march to the beat of a different tune: "I'm the boss." Take that, The Boss. She hires overqualified, college bound Natalie (Simran Bal) as a summer intern to assist in transforming her home into a retirement community for her dearest friends, ball buster Louise (marssie Mencotti), and the calm, yet commanding Terry (Valerie Gorman). In case you're wondering what that sound is, it's my heart squealing with delight.
Instead of the sitcom hi-jinx one would suspect from such a premise, the humor embedded in the piece comes from heart and earnestness. From the casual way Jean slings whiskey from the jump to Louise's use of a cane for the purpose of being dramatic, these subtle details provoke a chuckle or two. (They also underline who these characters are at their core.) The comedic pacing in terms of dialogue spatters here and there, but the physical bits and mannerisms land more often than not. We go full First Wives Club later with peak slapstick that makes the play sing. And when it hits those dramatic notes, this highbrow Hallmark show provides goose bump levels of vibrato.
The efforts of inter-generational bonding are what make this show harmonious. It's an honest portrayal of how this journey doesn't happen overnight and that it has to come from a shared place of wanting to understand and learn for both parties involved. Natalie introduces intersectional feminism to the women and the play's namesake as a potential name for the retirement community. Terry mentions the struggles of online dating as a later in life lesbian. Louise highlights the importance of independence and allowing yourself to get what you want. Jean shows a love for learning should never fade and we should be as kind to ourselves as we are to our friends. Herland may not be real, but a female utopia manifests itself for a highly entertaining hour and forty five minutes.
There are moments that begin fluffy and melt the more McLeod tenderly pulls on these characters' heartstrings. Ever so gently, she slowly reveals what keeps them up at night. Natalie's journey in particular metamorphoses her from uncertain and wiser than she gives herself credit for to practically floating in excitement and beaming confidence. Her budding exploration of sexuality and journey toward queerness (with incredible conversations awakened from Deanalís Resto as Becca), produces its most sincere moments. She needs the other women as much as they need her, maybe even more.
Natalie doesn't necessarily represent the future, at least not in terms of what Jean, Louise, and Terry could have been. She's on a path that is intrinsically different from theirs and that belongs to her, and is only hers. All four women end in new beginnings of self-discovery that they wouldn't have gained the courage to forge without one another. The end result is truly touching, and encourages us to break through those insecurities and smash that glass ceiling with our confidantes by our side.