Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Woman's Life—Hilariously Frank

by Kat Zukaitis
Sandra Tsing Loh
“Oh my God. What have I done? It’s like waking up the star of one of those hilarious Hangover movies. Except that you are not a guy, you are not in your twenties, you have no madcap party buddies and this is not hilarious.”

Welcome to Sandra Tsing Loh’s midlife crisis—a funny, frank story about subject matter that rarely gets a funny or frank treatment…especially if you’re a woman.

We all have an idea of what a midlife crisis looks like, and while the details inevitably vary from person to person, the basic outlines—or at least their typical pop cultural representations—are startlingly similar. There’s practically a script.

Here’s how it happens on TV (or in movies, books, and plays): Generally, men purchase a ridiculous sports car or motorcycle, and spend a few weeks or months reliving the glory days of their youth, maybe having an affair with a much younger woman on the ride. Then, having learned a lesson about embracing maturity, they likely have the choice to return home to reinvest in a newly harmonious relationship with the (initially upset but eventually understanding) spouse and children. Or they move on to a new family, secure in the knowledge that they get another chance to get it right. Women in these stories are often handed a very different script, one that involves fewer Harleys and a lot more trauma. Let’s take a quick survey of some classic literary and cultural models of women who, mid-life, need to reinvent themselves.

The traditional narrative involves a housewife trapped in a lackluster marriage who decides to find fulfillment at any cost, often with tragic consequences. In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a frustrated but unapologetic Nora Helmer walks away from the only life she’s known, leaving her husband and children behind. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s landmark 1899 novel The Awakening, also rebels against society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother—but her chosen method of escape is first an affair; and then, when that sours, suicide.

But surely more recent narratives of middle-aged women who take charge of their destinies are more empowering?

Yes and no. Remember Thelma and Louise from the iconic 1991 movie, a waitress and housewife who shoot a rapist and take off in a Thunderbird? Their tragedy is that there’s not room for women like them in the world—at least not that they can see—and they elect to go out with a bang. Perhaps the biggest midlife crisis movie of the past decade has been 2010’s Eat, Pray, Love, in which Elizabeth Gilbert—like Sandra Tsing Loh, a successful writer who endured a painful divorce—travels the world and, instead of dying or going mad, finds happiness in Bali with a Brazilian lover. 

Here’s the catch: every one of these women blows up her life in the process of redefining her identity, and they never go back. If the stereotype of the male midlife crisis involves banging an intern and buying a Harley, the female stereotype involves the total destruction of one’s marriage, family life and stability. With a very few exceptions (Fried Green Tomatoes, anyone?), we simply do not get popular stories of women who navigate a midlife crisis without throwing away the life they had. 

Enter Sandra Tsing Loh. At 46, she, too, has blown up her life. I won’t give away the details here, but it involves a trip to Burning Man (picture a neo-hippie Woodstock populated by pyromaniac artists), a freak sandstorm, an unexpected affair, the onset of menopause and a lot of questionable advice. As the mother of two young daughters, moving to Bali isn’t exactly an option for her—but neither is going back to the way things were.

Unlike the women in most pop cultural representations of crisis, Loh does not try to leave behind the smoking ashes of her old life. She stays to deal with the fallout, piece by painful piece, and sometimes the wreckage is not pretty. The Madwoman in the Volvo, which both challenges and embraces the stereotype of the female midlife crisis, is the story of living with your scars and loving the person who emerges from the flames.

Southern California audiences are already familiar with Sandra Tsing Loh as a celebrated writer and radio personality. Her radio shows include The Loh Life on KPCC and The Loh Down on Science, and she has been a regular contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's This American Life and American Public Media's Marketplace. The New York Times review of her 2008 memoir Mother on Fire described her writing as “no less than a feat of genius.” A graduate of Cal Tech and USC, she currently teaches visual art and science communication at UC Irvine.

Loh breathed fresh life into the female midlife crisis genre with her 2014 memoir, The Madwoman in the Volvo, which was named to that year’s New York Times list of 100 Notable Books. The memoir became the basis for an interactive solo show that she performed at New York’s Public Theatre. Now, Orange County has a chance to catch a reimagined version of Loh’s hilarious, heartbreaking performance. Loh performs as herself, and she's joined by Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who populate many characters in this theatrical imagining premiering at South Coast Repertory.

Loh teams up with director Lisa Peterson, a longtime LA resident, to tell her story. Before moving to New York, Peterson was the associate director at La Jolla Playhouse and resident director at Mark Taper Forum. She directs new work around the country and has received Obie and Lortel Awards for An Iliad, which she directed and co-wrote with Dennis O’Hare. Rachel Hauck’s set, Candice Cain’s costumes, Geoff Korf’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ music and sound designs round out the experience.

So how does Loh miraculously transform her tale of tragedy into a hilariously frank discussion of midlife, menopause and moving on? There’s no magic formula, but persistence, friends, and an enduring sense of humor are a big help. So is a willingness to speak publically about one’s imperfections, embarrassments and heartaches. The fact that there are no easy answers is part of what makes Loh’s story so affecting. The solutions are just as messy as the problems—which are just as messy as real life.

When your life goes down in flames, sometimes all that’s left is to make art from the ashes.

Learn more and buy tickets.

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