Friendships between younger and older people aren’t often treated with authenticity and dignity in the theatre. What’s refreshing about Grace McLeod’s one-act comedy Herland (the book of the same name by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is referenced in the show), presented by the Moxie Theatre as a National New Network Rolling World Premiere, is how the play respectfully handles the relationships between a high school graduate and three significantly older women.
A woman in her 70s, Jean (Rhona Gold), hires a young teenager Natalie (Moxie’s Business Manager Christine Cervas Nathanson) as her personal intern. Jean’s goal is for Natalie to help her create a retirement community that’s far from a stereotypical retirement home. That, however, is really more of a plot device, as the playwright is more interested in the friendship that forms between four women.
Through her internship in Jean’s garage (Julie Lorenz’s set looks like a mini house of sorts), Natalie draws closer to Jean and her two closest friends, the no-nonsense Louise (Jill Drexler), and the soft-spoken Terry (Loie Gail).
Much of the early comedy in McLeod’s script is based on the differing personalities among the four women. There is a little too much intentional awkwardness early on, as Natalie sometimes doesn’t know how to act with Jean, Terry and the domineering Louise. In retrospect, however, these moments make more sense as the audience learns more about Natalie’s personal life, and the script develops as a coming-of-age story for her.
McLeod’s positive depictions of human connections are what fuel the action onstage, and Artistic Director, Jennifer Eve Thorn, paces the production well, especially in a handful of memorable scenes.
Thorn stages an extended conversation between Natalie and a young adult, Becca (Meg Stoll Tron), almost like a short play, in a self-contained sequence that helps flesh out the character and personality of the intern. Another dramatic sequence towards the conclusion of the show is almost completely pitch black, and Thorn moves the narrative forward by relying on the voices of the performers.
Nathanson and Gold get people invested in the story, with an easygoing and charming chemistry and their immediate interest in each other. Gail and Drexler bring a sense of loyalty to their roles, as both Terry and Louise have a strong bond with Jean, and there’s a warmth to their performances as they draw closer to Natalie.
Music from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band plays a part in Herland, particularly as Jean’s ex-husband, Bob, was in a cover band honoring “The Boss.” Lily Voon’s audio, which features “Glory Days” and “I’m On Fire,” uses lyrics that thematically tie into the situations onstage, and a very enjoyable use of a Springsteen tune in a dream sequence set to “Born to Run.” This features Voon’s crisp audio, Ashley Bietz’s concert-esque lighting, and Anastasia Puatova’s rocker-themed costumes.
One aspect about the play that McLeod will hopefully flesh out in the future is a crucial part of the conclusion. Theatregoers hear about an important conversation between two people by having it described to the audience. This sequence would be more powerful if we saw these characters actually interact with each other. Other than this, it’s a moving resolution that ends the evening on an optimistic note.
What’s sophisticated about McLeod’s writing is the respect and care in which she treats the three friends and Natalie, and how they impact each other in positive ways.
McLeod’s tale features plenty of strong humor and sincere moments that will appeal equally to teenagers and adults. Moxie has produced another high-quality NNPN Rolling World Premiere.