A World of Women 

Theater company debuts with lesbian-themed ensemble piece

Theater company debuts with lesbian-themed ensemble piece

Last Summer at Bluefish Cove

Presented by Cat Tail Productions

May 2-3 at Unity Center in Donelson Plaza, 2710 Old Lebanon Rd.

Plays revolving around gay and lesbian themes have usually been relegated to an artistic corner often termed “alternative.” There have been occasional, more mainstream breakthroughs such as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, from 1982, but precious few are the plays in wide distribution that deal overtly with lesbianism.

Jane Chambers (1937-1983) was a well-established writer for soap operas such as Search for Tomorrow and Somerset, until 1974, when the success of her lesbian-themed play A Late Snow allegedly led to her being blacklisted. Chambers went on to write other scripts such as My Blue Heaven, Kudzu and The Quintessential Image, in so doing becoming a major feminist voice in American theater.

Sadly, Chambers passed away prematurely from cancer at age 46, but not before she also produced Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, a well-crafted comedy-drama that presents an intriguing snapshot of a time when being a lesbian out of the closet remained a risky social proposition—or at least riskier than in the present day. A fledgling Nashville theatrical group, Cat Tail Productions, under the guidance of Trin Blakely and Julie Alexander, has ventured forth with Bluefish Cove as its debut effort, and what the production lacks in overall polish and across-the-board acting strength is more than compensated for with a committed feminist sensibility, the pleasure of Chambers’ funny, realistic writing, and the potential to draw a supportive local audience.

The setting is a Long Island beach resort, which, at curtain’s rise, seems prosaic enough. Eventually, we learn that Bluefish Cove—for all other intents and purposes a summer getaway for New York City professionals—is a long-established entirely lesbian community. The main set piece is a typical vacation cabin, where seven women will gather for what has become a yearly holiday ritual. There’s upbeat Annie, the acclaimed sculptor, who has arrived with her devoted partner Rae; there’s noted feminist writer Kitty Cochran, accompanied by her assistant Rita; and there’s well-heeled Sue, who is forthright about the arrangement she has established with her trophy girlfriend, Donna. The play’s pivotal character is Lil, a charismatic “alley cat” of a lady, currently unattached, beloved by all and courageously battling cancer.

The women’s summer revels are disrupted when a new neighbor enters their tight-knit sphere. Eva, recently divorced and straight, has rented a nearby cabin, yet she has no knowledge of Bluefish Cove’s unspoken “residency requirement.” In all innocence, she befriends Lil, then accepts an invitation to a group gathering, at which she expects to meet husbands as well as wives. Eva’s stranger-in-a-strange-land odyssey is the Act 1 focal point; her eventual acceptance by the other women and her deepening friendship with Lil comprise the critical moments of Act 2. Throughout, Chambers’ characters are pitted against one another quite credibly. There are contentious moments, some revived jealousies based on past relationships, and quite a bit of interesting and humorous banter revolving around the group’s perceptions of Eva. There are also some snippets of feminist sermonizing, though they mostly come into play when the somewhat haughty Kitty waxes eloquent about her latest book. There is humor even in these instances, though, since Kitty is, as far as the others are concerned, just one of the girls.

The plotting is thin, yet strong enough to support the play’s basic aim, which is to provide audiences a glimpse of the inner workings of lesbian social life, which exists within a culture that often exerts the pressure of maintaining a hidden identity. That the play does so successfully, and with a minimum of overt politicking, is a tribute to Chambers’ ability to focus with clarity on real people and personal issues such as love, friendship, fidelity, family dynamics and the basic human need to leave some kind of legacy. Make no mistake, sisterhood is the linchpin that holds the Bluefish Cove coterie together—and they are sexual beings. In this regard, the play is clearly adult in nature. Yet the trials, tribulations and triumphs here are universally human in spirit.

The direction is by co-producer Alexander. In general terms, she’s got things right, and the production moves inexorably through heartbreak to its hopeful denouement. There are some awkwardnesses, however. Though the realities of lesbianism are tastefully explored, a few other critical, inexplicit scenes demanding closer physical interaction were played a little timidly or at arms’ length. Actors were emoting—not engaging.

The casting is uneven. As warmhearted Annie, Blakely is a consistently likable performer. Former soap opera actress (and Daytime Emmy nominee) Sharon Wyatt starts slowly but generates some interesting moments as Kitty the feminist doyenne. Virginia Evans, as her attentive associate and girlfriend Rita, is a pleasant presence, if a little self-conscious. Ditto Helia Rethmann as Rae. Local community theater veteran Myra Anderson gets some laughs as the wealthy and jaded Sue (though maybe Chambers should get all the credit for that). In her stage debut as Donna, the voluptuous Ree Mitchell certainly grabs attention, cavorting in a bikini for a portion of the play. But she also delivers her lines with some meaning, such that her actorly gifts are clearly distinct from her physical ones.

In the key role of Eva is Trish Moalla. Her performance is nothing if not sincere. Alas, it isn’t much of anything else. She moves gracelessly and seems far more uncomfortable than her character would be when thrust into the play’s confusing situation. Her line readings are too often wooden, and there is little natural in her approach to Eva’s requisite wide-eyed innocence and discovery.

But whatever shortcomings exist in the cast, all are redeemed by the marvelous Stacy Shaffer, who as Lil brings a sensually appealing, pixyish earthiness to her character that is often riveting. Shaffer is simply a fine actress, with flexible vocal tools, an organic sense of movement and sensitive general instincts.

Bluefish Cove is a decidedly mixed effort from a new theater company, yet the production offers enough interesting stagework to recommend it to audiences who will embrace the play’s message.

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