“I have returned, and it begins.”
The opening line of “Hurricane Diane,” which ignited such uproarious cheers Wednesday night at the Wimberly Theatre that it stopped the show for a few moments, seemed almost too on-the-nose.
I mean, come on. Live indoor theater is finally back in Boston after nearly 18 pandemic-plagued months, and the first words we hear appear to have been scripted for the occasion?
But then “Hurricane Diane” — which, for the record, premiered off-Broadway in 2019 — resumed. And what transpired onstage over the next 90 minutes made me glad not just that live performance is back, but that Madeleine George’s incisively smart and boisterously funny play is the high-profile herald of that return. On multiple levels, this is the play we need right now.
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company and directed at a fittingly gale-force pace by Jenny Koons, “Hurricane Diane” is an environmental parable about climate change and the perils of interfering with nature. But playwright George has embedded her message within a skillfully constructed framework that makes room for plenty of laughs and anarchic energy and, importantly, characterizations that go beyond the “Desperate Housewives” cartoons they first appear to be.
That tonal complexity requires actors who can reach the sudden depths to which the play takes its characters, its story, and us. “Hurricane Diane” has a cast that is exhilaratingly up to that task, starting with Rami Margron’s assured portrayal of the title character, and extending to note-perfect performances by Esme Allen, Marianna Bassham, Kris Sidberry, and Jennifer Bubriski. Scenic designer Stephanie Osin Cohen has devised a coolly streamlined set whose elegance has the effect of intensifying the atmospheric turbulence that eventually overtakes the stage. (As it happened, Wednesday’s performance coincided with rain and wind outdoors as well, courtesy of a different hurricane, Ida.)
Diane is actually the Greek god Dionysus, having assumed the guise of a lesbian landscape gardener from Vermont, and she is livid at humanity for “mining and stripping and slashing and burning and generally despoiling the green earth that gave you life.” Her ambitious, non-negotiable goal is to wake up “every heedless human . . . to their place in the web of life,” a reconnection with the earth that will reduce carbon emissions, cool the oceans, revive forest growth, and bring about “the instant healing of our green planet.”
That’s a big job, one that requires acolytes. Improbably but entertainingly, Diane begins her quest by homing in on four women who are friends and neighbors in a New Jersey suburb.
There’s control-freak Carol (Allen), whom you might call a force of anti-nature, so intent is she on a perfectly manicured yard (Carol is aghast when Diane proposes ripping out her lawn and restoring it to “a semblance of the lush primeval forest that once stood where we stand right now”). There’s sophisticated Renee (Sidberry), a top editor at HGTV magazine who is self-aware enough to chafe at her skill in delivering a reassuringly domesticated version of nature to the magazine’s readers.
There’s quaveringly insecure Beth (Marianna Bassham), whose abandonment by her husband has left her lawn in the same bad shape as her self-esteem. And there’s blunt, forceful, leopard-print-wearing Pam (Jennifer Bubriski), whose brassy exterior conceals a certain wistfulness about an unrealized dream.
Will Diane be able to enlist them all — and seduce them all — in furtherance of her mission? Will this suburban quartet be inspired to unleash their, well, Dionysian wildness in the process? Does our battered planet ultimately stand a chance of recovery, no matter what they do? Maybe, maybe not.
Another question that looms over “Hurricane Diane” and all other productions this fall, of course, is: How comfortable do you feel about being in a theater right now, given the spread of the Delta variant?
Individual theatergoers have to answer that for themselves. At Wednesday night’s performance, in accordance with the city of Boston’s indoor mask mandate, all audience members were required to wear masks throughout the Calderwood Pavilion. On the way into the theater, each spectator was required to show proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID test.
It was gratifying to see and hear the usual sights and sounds of an evening at the theater: spectators conversing animatedly, hunting for their seats, posing for selfies — all the bits of business that reliably serve as the show before the show. The house seemed about two-thirds full, maybe a little less. There are no capacity restrictions, but a Huntington spokesperson says the theater is “accommodating all requests from patrons who might like a bit of space around them.”
The Huntington came closer to starting on time than it usually does on opening night (it’s safe to say that audiences will be in no mood this season to cool their heels while waiting for performances to start). The pre-show remarks by managing director Michael Maso were both brief and heartfelt.
But let’s give the last word to Diane, a fed-up deity who would probably insist on it anyway: “So it’s time for a comeback!”
Play by Madeleine George. Directed by Jenny Koons. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Sept. 26. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org