Last Summer at Bluefish Cove starts out well enough: A timidly conventional housewife, Eva, stumbles unaware into a secluded seaside resort that has become a lesbian summer retreat. Lusty Lil meets Eva on the beach and, before realizing Eva is straight, invites her to a party. Later, the other guests begin gathering at Lil's place and are apprised of the situation; they don't take it well. There's successful sculptor Annie, with her longtime lover, Rae, and Kitty, a doctor turned best-selling feminist author, and her adoring secretary, Rita. Kitty, who's vain and full of herself, is afraid that the straight woman will learn of her sexual orientation, blow her cover and wreck her career. Needless to say, Eva's eventual arrival is stressful.
There's lots of opportunity here for comedy and misunderstanding, masquerade and partner switching, and at this point, the play could go in a number of directions. The women could try and fool Eva, pretending to be straight, à la The Birdcage. There are also interesting possibilities in Annie's art, her connubial relationship with warmhearted, housewifely Rae and the fact that she clearly also has feelings for Lil. Kitty comes across as the Martha Stewartish bitch that you love to hate. And as for little Eva, stumbling around in this world of big, bad dykes...well, the possibilities are endless. Eventually, we meet wealthy Sue, with her girl-toy lover, Donna, who's a comic force to be reckoned with. Okay, these are pretty stock characters, but that doesn't mean they can't be interesting. Stock characters exist because the world is full of vain authors, money-grubbing beauties, self-sufficient artists and conventional housewives.
You can also tell, within minutes of the play's beginning, that director Billie McBride has assembled a tremendous cast. Trina O'Neill's Eva is clearly one of those women who flutter endlessly around their men, asking if there's anything they can bring them -- more coffee? A pillow? The TV Guide? -- and she tries the same thing on Lil. She's so needy that you want to swat her, and at the same time, she's just so vulnerable and, well, sweet. As Annie, McPherson Horle manages to be butch without ever approaching exaggeration or caricature. She's tough, smart and independent, but hopelessly protective and emotional when it comes to her friends. We may have seen someone like this character before, but Horle makes her powerful and real. As Rae, Terry Ann Watts is the antithesis of Eva: She's the kind of wife everyone wants, with her dangling earrings and artfully knotted hippie shawl, her earthy, eccentric, funny sensibility. She's always at the stove or quietly watching the others so she can smooth out any acrimony or misunderstanding before it surfaces. She reminds me a little of Anna Madrigal, the marvelous landlady who presided over a house full of lost souls in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Denise Perry-Olson gives Lil an infectious smile and a warmly appealing presence, and Rhonda Brown's Kitty is strong and imperious.
So far, the play seems warm, smart and funny. But then things start to go wrong. We find out Lil has cancer. She's going to die. And we know we're in for a weepie.
Here's a critical tip you can take to the bank: If an author introduces cancer into her plot without revealing what kind of cancer it is, the story is going to be unfocused and sentimental. Sure enough, Bluefish Cove starts getting more vague; even the characters lose their outline. Kitty stops being an interesting monster and turns into a kindly doctor. Lil morphs into the sad, brave, life-loving cancer patient we've seen a thousand times. Eva flutters. Sue and Donna's relationship begins to seem more and more of a cliche -- though Jadelynn L. Stahl gives Donna so much oomph that she splits the seams of the flimsy stereotypical puppet she plays.
Lil has had treatments, but we're not sure what kind. People talk about growth. Do they mean a tumor? Several? Where? Everyone keeps consulting Kitty, even though she hasn't practiced medicine for years, and when she did, it was apparently as an ob-gyn. When Lil insists on going inside for a heavy cooler and her friends beg her not to carry it, we all know what's coming. And when she tries to drive Eva away by saying she never really cared about her, while all the while we can see the tears misting her eyes, it's reminiscent of nothing so much as those movies where the round-faced boy yells, "Go away! I don't love you!" at the bewildered pup his parents are planning to send away.
Lil dies off stage, just as we knew she would. But dying of cancer is a process, not a discrete event. Almost always, it goes on and on and on, and just when both the patient and those who love her are at the end of their endurance, it goes on some more. Then, when it stops, none of the survivors -- no matter how much they've longed for the end -- are ready. Chambers must surely have known this. She wrote Bluefish Cove in 1976, in memory of a friend lost to cancer. (And she herself died of a brain tumor only a handful of years later.)
The play does make some good observations about the difficulties of being gay in a homophobic society, as the other women explain to Eva just what she'll be giving up if she stays with Lil -- including, possibly, her relationship with her parents. And there was one moment when I fully believed in the reality of Lil's cancer -- when Denise Perry-Olson wept alone after the others had gone.
Paradoxically, while Last Summer at Bluefish Cove became flimsier and flimsier as it went along, its feminist message came through more and more strongly. It wasn't the playwright's insight that accomplished this, but the irrepressible talent -- the sheer woman power -- of the cast.
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