‘Diane’ begins comeback for Boston theater

Kris Sidberry, Jennifer Bubriski, Esme Allen, and Marianna Bassham in The Huntington production of “Hurricane Diane.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

BOSTON – Sometimes, a work of art is almost too relevant.

The Huntington Theatre Company is welcoming back audiences with Madeleine George’s “Hurricane Diane,” with climate change as a central theme and the setting in the days leading up to 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, which took 233 lives across eight countries and caused $70 billion in damages.

The official press opening on Sept. 1 saw rain and wind from the remnants of Hurricane Ida outside of the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts as the elements caused deadly flooding that night that took lives around the Northeast.

It was an emotional night as Huntington Managing Director Michael Maso took to the stage to celebrate a new beginning after 538 days without live theater in the city, stressing “A city without arts is a city that is diminished.”

The Huntington is part of a consortium of 14 area theaters that have banded together and adopted similar Covid-19 protocols for returning audiences, including masks as well as proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test. The city of Boston also requires masks for indoor events. At a recent performance, those protocols were in evidence as the audience filed in smoothly.

With “Hurricane Diane,” George, a writer for the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building,” which stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, has created a much-updated version of the Greek god Dionysius, charged with overseeing agriculture, vegetation, wine, and festivity

The god now appears in the guise of a lesbian “charm factory” named Diane (Rami Magron), who explains in an opening monologue that after abandoning Mount Olympus, she had been laying low in Vermont, living in a lesbian separatist community and working a sustainable landscape business.

Esme Allen and Rami Margron in The Huntington’s production of Hurricane Diane, playing through September 26 at The Huntington Calderwood/BCA. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Her new goal? Rescuing the planet from climate change, and beginning the recruiting for her environmental army by invading a secluded  cul-de-sac in suburban New Jersey and winning over – or seducing — four housewives with her unorthodox views on suburban landscaping, the ultimate goal being to convert them to acolytes after an initiation in a Bacchic tradition.

Dionysius/Diane isn’t a fish out of water – just a god out of water, outraged at what is being done to her beloved Earth and flummoxed by the suburban housewives and their entrenched views of what is possible without offending the neighbors. She is determined to replace their lush lawns with wild gardens of pawpaw trees, foxglove, and milk vetch.

At times, George ventures headlong into “Real Housewives of New Jersey” territory – how could she not? –in portraying the female residents of wealthy Red Bank, N.J.

The cast is all fine, but Esme Allen is first among equals as Carol Fleischer, entrenched in the creature comforts of her home, with a deathgrip on her lawn  and unwilling to take a leap – in any way – into the arms of Diane.

After their initial encounter goes awry, Diane decides to circle back to Carol later. That leaves her to try her chances with Renee Shapiro-Epps (Kris Sidberry), a hard-charging editor for HGTV Magazine, willing to give Diane’s ideas a hearing if they can help her up the ladder at the magazine.

Beth Wann (Marianna Basham) is simply wandering through life after her husband has left her, and since her neglected yard is already the scourge of the neighborhood, she has little to lose by inviting Diane into her home and listening.

Jennifer Bubriski is a hoot as Pam Annunziata, a hot-blooded whirling dervish of a woman out of the Tony Soprano wing of New Jersey housewives.

There are laughs aplenty, and an audience thirsty for comedy after 18 months without live theater found them all.

Director Jenny Koons pushes the pace of the 90-minute piece, performed without an intermission, so the next laugh is just around the corner.

A fall theater season that looked so promising at the beginning of July may have been upended somewhat by the Delta variant, but theater lovers at a recent performance seemed happy to just be back. This reviewer was.

.The Huntington Theatre Company production of “Hurricane Diane.” Written by Madeleine George. Directed by Jenny Koons.  In the Wimberly Theatre of the   Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Sept. 26. Huntingtontheatre.org.