Last Summer at Bluefish Cove
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
October 2, 2005
With '70s clothing styles and music in fashion now, it's easy to become nostalgic for that seemingly more simple time of sexual freedom and innocence. Think about it: Birth control pills are around, but AIDS isn't. You can be a feminist and a disco dance queen. It's all about choices, right? So it's sobering to see Last Summer At Bluefish Cove, written by Jane Chambers in 1976. It's about a community of lesbians who are family to each other because their own families have turned their backs on them. Unfortunately, what could be a lesson in how far we have come in terms of acceptance is marred by questionable casting and directing choices, and also by a script that's long on exposition and short on nuance.
Maybe, in 1976, the exposition was necessary. Every character needed to tell their story because it was the first time an audience had heard spoken aloud tales of women losing custody of their children for coming out or of mothers calling their own daughters "disgusting perverts" for being gay. Those monologues served a purpose; but there are also long passages where the characters tell each other stories that they already know in order to give the audience information. These long "Remember when…"s diminish the impact of the play.
Lil, the lead character, is a young woman and part of a group who meet every summer in Bluefish Cove, a beach on Long Island Sound. She is fighting cancer but refuses to acknowledge her illness or need for further treatment after already having undergone chemotherapy and a hysterectomy. Bluefish Cove is a lesbian summer resort and the owner has never rented to a heterosexual out of protection of the women's privacy. For reasons never explained in the script, Eva, a woman divorcing her chauvinist husband, rents a beach house for the summer, unaware that she is in a lesbian community.
Lil is amazed to learn that Eva is ignorant of where she is, but invites her anyway to a party at her cabin. One of the other women, Kitty, a well-known talk show guest and author of a self-help feminist psychology book, is mortified that she might be outed by this stranger. She compels the rest of the group—her girlfriend and secretary Rita; Sue, a wealthy older woman with a young golddigging and shallow lover named Donna; Annie, Lil's best friend; and Annie's partner, Rae, a divorced homemaker and mother of two—to pass for straight. (These partnerships are all in their own way sly comments on lesbian relationships aping straight pairings and dynamics, but they're unfortunately not explored here through physical acting choices or direction.)
When Eva does figure things out, she returns to Lil's cabin alone. Now romantically interested, Lil puts her off, not wanting to be someone's experiment; but at the beginning of the second act, they have moved in together.
I felt like everything that was interesting happened during the intermission. How does a self-identified straight woman go from being sexually curious about another woman to living with her as a life partner without any questions or doubts? Even if that does happen in real life, shouldn't drama have higher stakes? Perhaps the playwright thought the meat of the plot was that Lil doesn't tell Eva that she is dying. She has chosen to end life on her terms without any more surgery or procedures. The rest of the play is Lil keeping this secret from Eva. The rest of her friends try to support her while they disapprove of her choice to remain silent.
A character who doesn't tell the person who loves her and has arranged to spend the rest of their life with her that she is dying of cancer is a tough challenge for an actor. The choices don't have to be likable, but they should be clear. Karyn Plonsky as Lil does not seem to have made any specific choices. She plays Lil with a general attitude of plucky charm and toughness. Kate Foley, as Eva, seems similarly attached to playing a mood of good-natured sweetness without anger or conflict, even when she discovers Lil's secret. The direction by Pamela Scott has actors presenting outward to the audience during their monologues and even in scenes with each other. What conflict there is devolves into shouting matches with actors placed on opposite sides of the stage.
The more experienced actresses—Susan Montez (Sue), Summer Moore (Kitty), and Darcy Reed (Rae)—all gamely make the most of their stock characters. Montez is especially compelling when she gives her reasons for staying with a young girl who she knows is only after her money.
Set designer Anne Allen Goelz makes great use of the playing space, and costumer Karen Ann Ledger has found some really great outfits that show off each character's personality and the period.
As the show let out, I heard one audience member who could have been in her 60s say to her companion, "See? That wasn't so offensive." Maybe we really have come a long way, baby.