It was Moxie Theatre's publicity photo that drew me to "Herland" — three 70-something women and their teenage intern rocking out in the Rolling World Premiere of a comedy about creating a new kind of retirement home.
I was already a fan of Moxie, which has been producing cutting-edge plays by and about women since 2005. And "Herland" was written by Grace McLeod, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, who now, at 23, is the youngest person ever to receive a Rolling World Premiere from the National New Play Network.
Not having heard of Rolling World Premieres before, I asked Jennifer Eve Thorn, director of "Herland" and executive artistic director of Moxie, to fill me in. She said Moxie belongs to the NNPN, which offers nonprofit theaters an extensive database of new plays to choose from — 23,802 scripts by 5,930 writers, last time I checked.
"You can specify whatever you want in a play," she explained. "And I've been wanting juicy roles for women over age 60. I see a lot of them in the audience, but I don't see enough opportunities for them to showcase their talents onstage. 'Herland' was just what I was looking for. It's about women of different ages being together and liking it. I love that, and my staff loved it, too."
Two other theaters were interested in the play, which made it a Rolling World Premiere, where each theater agrees to produce the play within a year and have the playwright involved in the production. So after Moxie, "Herland" goes on to Chicago and L.A., and McLeod has the opportunity to refine her work and get audience reactions all year long.
At Moxie's opening night, Jan. 26, audience reaction was enthusiastic, with standing ovations for cast and playwright at the end. Acting and direction were fine — as expected at Moxie — and there were lots of laugh-out-loud lines in "Herland." But I was a little confused.
The photo that lured me in was just a brief dream sequence — from the teen's point-of-view. In fact, 18-year-old Natalie, the smart, energetic, openhearted summer intern, is the play's key character. Newly-divorced Jean initiates the action by interviewing Natalie in the garage that was formerly a "no-women-allowed zone," reserved to her ex-husband and his Bruce Springsteen cover band.
Now that he's left her, and her married son is pressuring her to move into a retirement community, she's making it her office, a place to work out the details of turning her house into a personalized retirement home for her and her lifelong best friends, Louise and Terry. She hires Natalie to provide computer savvy and help realize that dream.
But the three older women seem remarkably clueless. They have no special interests, although two of them do like their liquor. Louise is the only one who had her own business and never married, but independence isn't something she prized. "She's the best friend everyone has in the movies," Terry tells Natalie. Terry, the quiet one, has just told her friends — and Natalie — that she's a lesbian. By the end of the play, there are two coming outs and one big disappointment, and the strongest scene by far is an intimate meeting between Natalie and a late-entry character, college-age Becca.
Without doubt, it's the scene closest to the playwright's heart.
This is adults-only theater, and McLeod is obviously a writer with plenty of moxie. As the show rolls on, maybe she'll take a closer look at the older characters, and give all three a chance to come out in their own ways onstage.
(FYI: Besides playing Natalie, the young intern in "Herland," Christine Cervas Nathanson has another role at Moxie: she's the theater's Business Manager!)
• IF YOU GO: "Herland," runs through Feb. 17, 2019 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite N, San Diego. Tickets: $18-$44, with discounts. (858) 598-7620. moxietheatre.com