Elisabeth Doss is one of Austin’s most prolific playwrights, with new, fully realized works coming out annually. Though these plays are most often produced through the Paper Chairs Theater Company (of which she is co-artistic director), her latest work, “Severe Weather Warning,” gets its premiere courtesy of Theatre en Bloc.
“Severe Weather Warning,” running through May 5 in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre, is a comedic take on the lifelong friendship of four Austin women who have gathered at a beach house for a birthday celebration. Two of the women are married mothers, two are single, and all of them are at different levels of career success, leading to a study in contrasts between how all four have evolved since their high school days and how the others respond to their changed lives.
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As their first evening at the beach house progresses, though, the narrative takes a darker turn, with a tremendous storm threatening the beach town even as the women turn to alcohol and drugs as both entertainment and a desperate search for enlightenment. When the storm finally breaks — both literally and figuratively — it does so with stunning abruptness that seems to rapidly cut off much of the mounting tension, character development and dangling narrative threads. Though this may well be a deliberate metaphor for the sudden squalls tossed by life itself, it is very dramatically unsatisfying, leading to the feeling of a rather rushed conclusion that doesn’t fully realize some of the text’s potential.
Director Jenny Lavery does a wonderful job creating the rising tension, as well as the realization of the storm’s fury, slowly transforming the naturalist set (co-created by Cheraya Esthers, Sam Grimes and Lavery) into a messy realization of the character’s inner turmoil. At its core, though, “Severe Weather Warning” is not a play of technical mastery or stage tricks; it is, rather, a spotlight for the four talented actresses in the cast. Where Doss’ script excels here is in creating these four distinctive voices and unique personalities, each of whom could convincingly be thought of as the play’s central figure, a feat that also owes much to the strength of the actresses’ performance.
As “super-mom” Anne, Giselle Marie Muñoz goes through perhaps the most dramatic arc, deftly revealing the extreme tension and sacrifice that goes into such a role. This is in stark contrast to Kacey Saimee’s charmingly neurotic Annette, a mother to a newborn who is struggling to adjust to her new life. Leslie McDonel’s Agatha, meanwhile, is a free spirited trust fund beneficiary whose open-heartedness seems to hold the group together, despite a somewhat darker edge that is never fully explored (but hinted at tantalizingly by McDonel). Completing the quartet is Charlotte Gulezian, a newcomer to the Austin stage, whose turn as the sarcastic, smart-mouthed Adel provides much of the text’s darker wit and cynical edge.
Though imperfect in its structure, “Severe Weather Warning” is a solid look at the nature of female friendship as it transforms over time, with four dynamic performances that sell the at turns comic and tragic nature of the text, even when that text is uneven.