In Madeleine George’s play “Hurricane Diane,” the Greek god Dionysus, in the guise of a butch lesbian “charm factory” named Diane, plots an earthly comeback to try to save the planet from the ravages of climate change. Her first mission? Infiltrate the lives of four strong-willed women residing in the cozy confines of a suburban New Jersey cul-de-sac and convert them as acolytes in a Bacchic initiation.
The play is the first of the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2021-22 season, marking its return to live, in-person performances for the first time in 538 days. “Hurricane Diane” runs Friday through Sept. 26 at the Calderwood Pavilion.
“It’s like if Eurypides’s ‘The Bacchae,’ ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey,’ and HGTV Magazine ran at each other at 60 miles an hour and collided,” says George, an Amherst native, over the phone from her home in upstate New York. “It’s basically a sequel to ‘The Bacchae’ in sitcom form.”
So a rip-roaring comedy about … global warming? Say what now? Indeed, with “Hurricane Diane,” George proves that sharp humor and lively banter can coexist with catastrophe. As she wrote the play, George says that she wanted to use humor to open up more difficult questions about the climate crisis, the human capacity for change, and our collective responsibilities to the planet.
“What can comedy let us see or think about or ask in a way that we can’t bear to see or think about or ask in drama? Does comedy open a door?” says George, who’s a writer for the upcoming Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building,” which stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez.
George says that “Hurricane Diane” is a departure from her previous plays, including the brainy “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence,” a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist that explored the agony and the ecstasy of human interaction. “That was more of an elaborate intellectual game. My other plays have been a little headier,” George says. “This is much more forcefully a comedy.”
In the opening monologue, the audience learns that Dionysus, the Greek deity of agriculture, vegetation, wine, and festivity, has been lying low in Vermont as “Diane,” living with a lesbian separatist community and then running a sustainable landscaping business.
As Diane (Rami Margron) rolls into the cozy confines of a Monmouth County, N.J., cul-de-sac and intersects with the women there, she attempts to woo them into planting wild gardens filled with pawpaw trees, foxglove, and milk vetch, creating “a lush primeval forest” where their immaculately maintained green lawns currently stand. Her ideas seem bizarre and radical to these four headstrong housewives, but after Diane turns on her powers of seduction and persuasion, some of the ladies embrace her outré ideas.
The “girls,” as they call themselves, include the animal-print-loving, hot-blooded Jersey dynamo Pam (Jennifer Bubriski), a funny and boisterous housewife who’s become something of a doomsday-prepper; the sweet-but-spacey Beth (Marianna Bassham), whose husband recently left her and who George says is “waiting for someone to come and release her into total ecstatic abandon”; Renee (Kris Sidberry), a smart, successful editor at HGTV Magazine who has free-spirited past and becomes energized by Diane’s outside-the-box ideas; and the forceful, uptight Carol (Esme Allen), who works at a pharmaceutical company.
”They’re avatars for parts of myself, because that’s always true in a play,” says George, who first got into theater and playwriting at Amherst Regional High School.
Even Carol, who’s uncompromising in her need for her creature comforts, is a person with whom George deeply identifies. “As things change around us and the world becomes more uncertain and harder to navigate, some of us cling harder and harder to the things that make our lives feel comfortable and safe, and I would include myself in this,” says George, who’s married to playwright Lisa Kron (“Fun Home,” “Well”).
After a Hurricane Sandy-like storm struck their community and cut off power to their homes for days, the women became a close-knit, if unlikely, group of friends. “They’re quite different from each other, but they’re deeply bonded now,” George says. “There’s this idea that in a desperate situation, humans will turn into animals and just tear each other apart. But the reality is that people rise to the occasion in an emergency in startling and extraordinary ways. They look out for each other. And I feel like that’s the brightest spot of hope in terms of how we’re going to survive as the world around us changes rapidly.”
The inspiration for the play didn’t begin with the climate angle at all. Instead, George had been reading Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire,” which examines how domesticated plants co-evolved with people. In one section, Pollan looks at the legendary figure of Johnny Appleseed (a.k.a. Leominster native John Chapman). He argues that Appleseed crisscrossed America planting apple orchards for people to make hard cider, calling him the “American Dionysus” for bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.
“I was like, ‘American Dionysus’? That sounds like fun!” George recalls. “The original idea was: How fun would it be to have a bacchanal on a suburban cul-de-sac? Then I was like, why would Dionysus actually come back? What would he be after? And I was like, oh … I see! There’s a big problem with the natural world!”
“Dionysus is the god of cultivation, of where the civilized world and the wild world touch, and that zone where humans interact with the natural world is a very fraught place right now. So Dionysus would worry, how are humans destroying this delicate balance?”
As she was writing the play, George was driven by questions like: “How are we walking around and living our lives knowing what we’re doing is bringing about our own end?”
That’s especially resonant in a summer when wildfires burned millions of acres in the western United States and Canada and flash floods inundated the South and destroyed towns in Europe, events that experts said were exacerbated by global warming.
For the play’s director Jenny Koons, the play raises questions about “our willingness as humans to change the way we live — whether we are responsible to others to change and what it will take for us to change our ways.”
But Koons stresses that those moral dilemmas are the undercurrent of a play that’s “not over-intellectualized at all.”
When she told a server at JP Licks that she was in town to direct a play about climate change, she saw his face darken. “But the guy at JP Licks would love this play, because it’s funny and quippy and sounds like shows you see on TV,” Koons says. “And it’s weird!”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Aug. 27-Sept. 26. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required.
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.