At intermission of Penumbra Theatre's buoyant "Weathering," I was transfixed by a group of beautifully dressed women who spent that 15 minutes laughing, sharing photos on their phones, complimenting each others' jewelry, drinking cocktails, dancing, telling stories and generally enjoying the heck out of each other.
Harrison David Rivers has written the kind of play that inspires that kind of joy. "Weathering," a world premiere at Penumbra, could be compared to "Steel Magnolias," also a comedy-drama with six women sharing their sorrows and hopes. But "Weathering" is a better play that takes bigger risks and gets laughs from the specifics of Rivers' sharply drawn characters, not punchlines.
"Weathering" opens with Lena (Vinecia Coleman) in an immaculate kitchen. Her husband (JuCoby Johnson), mother (Greta Oglesby), neighbors and friends are wary of her and we soon learn why: She's mourning her stillborn daughter. Rivers and director Colette Robert make space for that grief but also know emotions are unruly. Soon, what is sad about Lena's life gets mixed up with what is funny, and that feels like a road to healing.
Please don't let that description make you think "Weathering" is a slog because it is, in fact, Big Fun, even before these dazzling women do the electric slide to Earth, Wind & Fire's unstoppable "September." The moment could seem cheap, as your feet also start moving to that crowd-pleaser, but it feels like it's drawing us into the action, instead.
The archetypal characters include a church lady (Austene Van), a quick-witted sister (Ashwanti Ford), an awkward neighbor (Ashe Jaafaru) and a friend with a secret (Oyeman Ehikhamhen), but Rivers and the vibrant actors make them specific. The things they say are funny because we get to know them — as, for instance, when there's talk about the cliché that women tend to marry a version of their father and Lena tells Nikko, "You didn't," only to have Nikko rip back, "No, I married Mom, which is, like, 10 times worse."
Chelsea M. Warren's detailed set prepares us for a realistic piece. There's literally a kitchen sink, which feels like a joke about the gritty theatrical movement known as kitchen sink drama — because, despite the real-seeming people and behavior, "Weathering" is surreal. One major event may or may not be a bold metaphor for Lena's pain, for example. And when time gets jumbled, three visitors from different days are frozen in place, as if to indicate both Lena's confusion and how assaulted she feels by waves of kindness.
It's possible the entire play takes place in Lena's mind, as she summons the community she needs to help make her whole again. Honestly, I'm not even sure how many characters there are. One? The eight who are listed in the program? Or maybe about 100, which would include those of us in the audience for the opening of this hilarious, beautiful, wise work of art.
Who: By Harrison David Rivers. Directed by Colette Robert.
When: 7:30 Wed.-Fri., 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 6.
Where: Penumbra, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.
Protocol: Masks required.
Tickets: $20-$45, 651-224-3180 or penumbratheatre.