In the winter of 1980, Jane Chambers' Last Summer at Bluefish Cove was a canary in a coalmine. It was brought to stage by New York's The Glines, one of the first gay theater companies formed after the Stonewall riots. Chambers' bittersweet lesbian love story was a test to see if a queer play could make it in mainstream theater. It did. The show ran for 80 performances, paving the way for The Glines' next piece, Torch Song Trilogy, which won a Tony award in a landmark moment in the history of gay theater.
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove did not win a Tony. But it is charming, and its charm rests on its courage. The StageQ production opened Friday night at the Bartell Theatre.
It is the summer of 1976, and Lil (Susan Carnell), a cocky TV sales rep and self-proclaimed alley cat, is spending what may be her last summer at Bluefish Cove, a small lesbian haven on the Long Island Sound. She is joined by wisecracking Annie (Katy Conley), a famous sculptor and her best friend; warmhearted Rae (Tara Ayres), a housewife and mother who left her husband for Annie; tightly wound Kitty (Kristin Forde), a still-closeted doctor famous for her feminist manifestos; Rita (Paula Orton), Kitty's mousy secretary and secret lover; and Sue (Wendy Fern Hutton), a wealthy benefactor of Donna (Corianne Wilson), her much younger, gold-digging lover.
A straight person has never rented a cabin at Bluefish Cove, keeping it a lesbian haven for over 30 years -- until now. Enter Eva Margolis (Sarah Karon), a waspy, nave thirtysomething who has left her husband of 12 years and found a safe haven of her own: Bluefish Cove. Desperate for friendship, Eva insistently befriends Lil, but soon their friendship evolves into something more. What Eva doesn't know is that Lil is dying of cancer.
Sarah Karon is perfectly cast as the sheltered Eva. At times Karon lost her footing with Eva, performing rather than being, but she shone in an endearing moment with Lil, as she admitted her attraction to her. Susan Carnell is sexy, tough and vulnerable as Lil, but she was best in lighthearted moments, as was the script itself. Lil has some overwrought scenes in which both the play and Carnell fall short of the emotional resonance we seek.
The highlight of the show is Katy Conley. She inhabited Annie absolutely, taking her beyond the one-dimensional wisecracker she could have been and giving her warmth and depth. Tara Ayres is lovable as Rae, Kristin Forde makes a very convincing Kitty, and Wendy Fern Hutton has some nice moments later in the play as she explores Sue's depth. Corianne Wilson (Donna) and Paula Orton (Rita) don't have much to work with in their one-dimensional roles, but I believe there is some small opportunity for nuance, and it was missed.
The play's pacing is top-heavy, and the final act felt rushed and lacked emotional connection. I believe this is more a fault of the writing than it is of Laurie Attea's overall excellent casting and direction. The show rings truest in its comic moments; the more emotional scenes feel hollow and worn. Scenes of conflict reach a fever pitch too early, with nowhere to go but a sort of anticlimactic slump.
Thirty years later, despite the dated references to Donahue and clothes-shopping by catalog, it's surprising how groundbreaking this play still feels. It remains rare to see lesbian relationships portrayed with such warmth, candor and authenticity, and for that alone, I recommend this show. As an added bonus, it made me genuinely laugh and genuinely cry, and it gave me some food for thought.
Chambers told the New York Times in 1980, "As we become more comfortable with ourselves, the rest of the world will become comfortable with us." In this long journey, plays like Last Summer at Bluefish Cove have been an important step.