Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Madwoman in the Volvo
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of The Christmas Ballet and Irving Berlin's White Christmas

Sandra Tsing Loh, Shannon Holt, and Caroline Aaron
Photo by Debora Robinson
A midlife crisis is, by definition, a challenging time. Though the cliché is of a greying, balding, expanding man in a red sports car, women probably get the worst of it when it comes to middle-age transitions, given they have to face the myriad symptoms that accompany the walk off the hormonal cliff that is menopause. In her memoir of a play, The Madwoman in the Volvo, Sandra Tsing Loh relates—with honesty, humor, and insight—her exceptionally challenging journey through her late forties.

Loh, whom I first discovered through her sardonic and snarky commentaries on NPR, takes us along for a journey that begins with a trip to Burning Man, the massive art community that springs up every Labor Day weekend on a barren playa in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. There, under the influence of a surfeit of sand, nudity and psilocybin (and a lack of estrogen), Loh uncovers repressed emotions that set her on a course that will transform her life, and the lives of her family. I shall not spoil for you the many twists and turns and flashbacks of this journey, but Loh will take you on a ride through love, female friendship, betrayal, parenthood—all set amidst the backdrop of life in celebrity- and career-obsessed Southern California, which Loh skewers with scalpel-sharp precision.

Loh is assisted in this effort by Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who play a wide range of characters—Loh's friends, manager, family—mostly to hilarious effect, thanks, in part, to the lines Loh has written for them. Early on, the two (playing themselves at this point) bemoan the lack of opportunity for actresses of a certain age, and Holt deadpans that she enjoys middle-aged roles, because "As an actress, I love the chance to stretch myself." Aaron gives us several wonderful characters, but the highlight might be as one of Loh's friends dispensing relationship advice after several too many glasses of Chardonnay. (Loh was exceptionally brave in asking these two veteran performers to join her in the effort, because in terms of acting chops, they easily outshine Loh, who is a confident, but far more skilled as a writer than as an actor.)

But her bravery doesn't stop there, for Loh's story is not terribly flattering to her. Spoiler alert: her journey has included some very socially unacceptable choices, and she is more than willing to confess to them in front of us. In tolerant Berkeley, this is fine. We forgive her and understand. (Especially when she dispenses post-Trump hugs and offers the audience the opportunity to primal scream away our progressive anger—which the entire audience took advantage of.) But if she tried to take this show to Iowa or South Carolina, I can imagine there would be a fair bit of tut-tutting going on.

Though the show's narrative flow is a little disjointed, and Loh's acting is less than stellar (her writing may be honest, but her performance of it often feels false and forced), her story is worth listening to—partly for its humor and cultural insights, and partly as a cautionary tale to those approaching mid-life, with or without menopause.

The Madwoman in the Volvo runs through January 15, 2016, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performance on December 24, 25 or 31, or January 1 and 4. Tickets from $69-$75, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.

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