At the Aurora Fox, a very funny tragi-comedy about gods and human failing

What do four suburban women in New Jersey looking to shake their lives up a bit turn to for inspiration? “Landscaping” may not pop to the top of the list, but for this staid quartet, that can seem pretty exciting.

It gets even more so when the gardener who enters their lives is none other than Dionysus. Yes, the Greek demigod mostly associated with wine and debauchery is also in charge of orchards, vegetation and harvest. In Madeleine George’s 2019 comedy Hurricane Diane, the god comes in the form of a lesbian Earth mother hell-bent on restoring an Earth ravaged by human-caused climate change. She chooses as her starting point a quiet cul-de-sac, disrupting the coffee klatch of neighbors Beth, Renee, Carol and Pam.

Calling herself simply “Diane,” the god is played with appropriate hurricane force by Janae Burris in this new Aurora Fox production lovingly directed by Helen R. Murray. A comedian at heart with some impressive recent performances at the Fox (Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea and Queens Girl in the World), Burris is delightful in the role of a vexed god reluctantly leaving her bucolic life in Vermont to address the world being fucked up by humans. At first, her approach is not to go “full Greek” with her powers but to start softly with persuasion. If she can bring these four women around, she figures, she can grow the movement quickly to repair the Earth one mutilated ecosystem at a time using permaculture as her guiding light.

First to fall: Shannan Steel as Beth with Janae Burris as Diane | Marco Robinson Photo

Each of the women represent a different level of challenge, and Diane quickly sizes them up: The most difficult will likely be Carol (Emma Messenger, very much in her element), whose obsession with her clippings from the HGTV magazine has her fixated on things like a “wrought iron accent fence” and “curb appeal.” Next is tough-cookie Pam, a brassy, New York-accented busybody who favors animal print clothing and claims to have sex daily with her husband. Karen Slack has a field day with this character, moving her from a Jersey Shaw stereotype to a wild-eyed mini-goddess despite her earlier misgivings.

Renee (Chelsea Frye) is an easier mark, open to the idea of permaculture and comically open to Diane’s sexual charms. A newcomer to the Fox, Frye is fun to watch in this role as the believer with a lot of at-the-ready stats on her side (she is, after all, an editor at HGTV). At the far end is Beth (Shannan Steele), a recent divorcée whose disheveled yard (or “hay field” as Carol terms it) mirrors her pliant emotional state. Beth is the most willing acolyte, a woman eager to turn herself (and her lawn) over to a higher power — with the added bonus of putting herself in the hands of a woman capable of delivering a once-in-a-lifetime offstage orgasm.

Acting also as a narrator, Burris addresses the audience, chalking up her wins with a wink and a smile and softening her butch side with the unmistakable fact that the actor is, indeed, quite pregnant (see sidebar). It’s a physical attribute that adds another layer of deep female power to the performance, and while it’s not part of the plot, there are a few spots where referencing The Bump adds meaning and levity.

The Carol problem

Once it becomes clear that Carol may not be open to conversion, it’s gloves off for Diane. Swapping out her jeans and flannel shirt for “full Greek” robes and Wonder Woman arm thingies, she musters the combined power of the other three women in a climactic scene replete with writhing, moaning, thunder and lightning — and a release of estrogen that flowed over the audience like Febreze atop a sofa (I swear my dad boobs grew a little in the process.)

Not having it: Emma Messenger as Carol | Marco Robinson Photo

This is a fine ensemble cast, with all of the actors finding many layers within their individual characters. I have to think that Messenger has the most fun of all, playing a villain of sorts who stands as the rock in the stream against the powers of Diane. Carol represents that mostly silent majority — all those people out there who don’t really know or care much about climate change; who don’t want to recycle or have “bladder wort” in their backyard thank-you-very much; and who think a lawn is a beautiful thing to be continually enhanced by things like, ya know, wrought iron accent fences.

About 80 minutes presented without intermission, Hurricane Diane is a very funny play through the first hour. It gets more sober as things go full-Greek, and the ending may be a bit of a surprise for some. George’s script ultimately has to answer the question of whether this whole thing is solvable or savable, and whether the Carols of the world can ever be persuaded. Also, are there enough permaculture garden conversions to even make a dent?

We will, no doubt, see many more climate-change plays in the coming years, but this one does a beautiful job using comedy and magical realism to underscore what’s at stake — and who’s to blame.