Love is like fishing. We eye a catch we like, bait the lure, toss out the line and hope what we're offering is to our beloved's liking. Sometimes, the catch takes the bait, whether she'll be eaten whole, thrown back or kept in close stead is up to fate or dumb luck. Other times something else catches our line, perhaps a piece of trash quickly discarded or a fish previously obscured from view—a catch unlike anything we'd ever known. If it weren't for that random snag, it would have slipped past us.
That random snag is what puts the characters in Jane Chambers' play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove at the edge of a great romance. The play is set in the small beach community of Bluefish Cove in the summer of 1976. Bluefish Cove is more than just a vacation spot to those who rent its cabins—it's also freedom from judgment, stares, jeers and persecution. There aren't any men on the beaches of Bluefish, only women and the ladies who love them.
On this particular summer, one of the cabins is rented to a women unaware that Bluefish Cove is a haven for lesbian couples. After running out on her husband, Eva (Laurie Lister) finds herself in a dive bar, talking to a real estate agent and signing a lease for a summer cabin on the cove. When she ventures out to meet her neighbors, she discovers Lil (Carol Bivins) sweet-talking a bluefish onto her lure. Lil, excited to meet the only other single at the cove, extends an invitation to Eva to join in a beach party at her place. Eva excitedly accepts and admits to Lil that she hopes to meet a single man there, perhaps someone's brother or cousin. With shock and confusion, Lil asks how Eva came to be at Bluefish Cove this summer, as it was apparent Eva had no clue every couple attending the party was gay. Eva leaves to prepare for the get together, ignorant of her predicament.
Last Summer is regarded as one of the first American plays to portray lesbian characters as average, everyday folk dealing with the same issues as their straight peers. Each character in Last Summer is carefully crafted to encompass many roles and stereotypes of females from the ’70s (and, arguably, today). On stage are a homemaker, a fashionista, a feminist writer, a tomboy, an heiress, a secretary and a defiant independent. In creating a diverse base, Chambers allows her characters to transcend the label of lesbian to open the audience up to the relationship issues inherent in their struggle, not just the gender issue. When Eva enters Lil's party completely unaware of the women's relationships, her naive assumptions create a thick tension throughout the scene. Adding to the density are Eva's exuberant gestations about a book she's reading on female sexuality written by Dr. Kitty Cochrane (Lacey Bingham), a guest at Lil's party who's afraid she'll be publicly outed—and her career ruined—if Eva finds out she is a lesbian.
The cast in this Vortex production deftly plays to the tension, using it to carve hilarious moments out of excruciating awkwardness. The scenes between Lil (Bivins) and Eva (Lister) are sincere, sweet, harsh and heartbreaking. The chemistry between these two talented actors (or is it actresses?) is refreshing when often actors cast in homosexual roles seem to force their actions rather then let the feelings of the characters flow through. The depth of these moments and the pacing of the more light-hearted, humorous scenes is where this production is strongest.
Another beautiful scene occurs between Lil (Bivins) and her best friend Annie (Andrea Kepple). As the two friends reminisce about hardships they've endured in the past, the laughter and camaraderie was so natural and soft it created the perfect theatrical moment. The audience disappeared, the stage faded and all that remained was two women on the beach connecting to one another.
The only thing keeping Last Summer at Bluefish Cove from transcending from a good play into a great play is the absence of the most interesting and difficult character developments. (Warning, spoiler!) Before intermission, Eva has confessed her attraction to Lil, but Lil has refused to kiss her "on the first date." After the intermission, Eva and Lil are cuddled up on the couch talking about moving in together. The transformation from naive, straight, romantically broken Eva into enlightened, lesbian, in-love Eva is the most interesting development within the story, and it all happens off stage. Boo.
The story of their relationship, and other bits of strife they must overcome, is still fantastic and ground-breaking, especially given the period of this play, but part of the story is left untold. We see Eva tug on Lil's line, but none of the struggle that resulted in the catch of a lifetime.
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove , a play by Kathryn Wood, runs through Feb. 4 at the Vortex Theater. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information and for reservations, call 247-8600 or visit www.thevortextheater.org.