Left to right: Jill Drexler, Loie Gail and Rhona Gold in "Herland." Photo by Daren Scott
Avid readers may remember “Herland,” a 1915 novel by feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman about a utopian society populated and repopulated by women only. Gilman’s daring literary stroke is briefly referenced (during an intern character’s mini-lecture on utopian communities) in playwright Grace McLeod’s spirited new work Herland, though a poster of the book is pinned up on a wall, perhaps to inspire the women in her tale to heights of strength and self-reliance.
The truth is, these three women in their ‘70s – Jean (Rhona Gold), Louise (Jill Drexler) and Terry (Loie Gail) – are already possessed of strength and self-reliance. It’s the greater understanding that they come to have for each other, and for the intern (Christine Cervas Nathanson) they hire to help them create an alternative to a senior home, that unfolds along Herland’s narrative journey. It’s one accomplished, under the nimble direction of Moxie Theatre’s Jennifer Eve Thorn, with wit and charm, thanks to the performances of Gold, Gail and especially Drexler, whose oft-sardonic Louise enjoys about 80 percent of the play’s funniest comic lines.
The side story involves the 18-year-old high school intern Natalie, who is coming to terms with her sexual identity. This other journey complicates an already busy script, though its struggles and revelations are related to those of Jean, Louise and Terry, each of whom in her own way mentors the young searcher. The glue that ultimately bonds them all is friendship.
Hovering over the action even more than the “Herland” poster is the music of Bruce Springsteen. It is explained that Jean’s ex fronted a Boss tribute band, and she has made their garage – his rehearsal space – into the office of her new planning enterprise. Yet Springsteen seems an odd choice for the contemporary texture and messaging of this story. And a Natalie dream sequence with all the women belting out (and clad as) Bruce and his E Street Band is a little cringe-worthy. Maybe it all depends on one’s appreciation of the Springsteen look and leitmotif.
Moxie is one of three theaters in the U.S. debuting Herland as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program. Upcoming will be productions in L.A. and Chicago. What, no Jersey Shore?
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/30/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.