By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Eight gay friends gather together during one summer in an idyllic spot outside New York City and learn poignant lessons about love, commitment, and terminal illness. Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, right? If the 1994-95 Tony Award-winning Broadway show about gay men -- some of whom are HIV-positive -- springs to mind, you can't be entirely faulted. And yet in 1976 the late Jane Chambers wrote a play in which eight women, one of whom has cancer, spend the summer at a lesbian beach community. Although less inventively structured and more melodramatic than L!V!C!, Chambers's Last Summer at Bluefish Cove offers a tough and tender exploration of lesbian love/friendship specifically and of female identity in general; it also transcends the niche of gay drama by examining the universal experience of coping with illness. In a current production of Bluefish Cove at New River Repertory in Fort Lauderdale, Leslie McMillan-Perez's assured direction does justice to Chambers's intelligent and emotional story, while a talented cast delivers fine-tuned and moving performances.
For four consecutive summers, a group of seven friends has been coming to a private enclave of cottages situated on northeastern Long Island to share lazy days at the beach, fresh fish dinners, drinks, gossip, and, occasionally, lovers. There's Dr. Kitty Cochrane, physician and author who has penned a feminist tract on sexual liberation; her doting secretary/girlfriend Rita; famous sculptor Annie Joseph; Annie's long-time companion Rae (mother of two kids from a now-defunct marriage); Boston Brahmin Sue, older and wealthy; Sue's bratty, gold-digging gal-pal Donna; and high-spirited and hardheaded Lil, who has a passion for catching the bluefish that inhabit the cove.
But this season promises to be different than the others as Lil recuperates from a radical hysterectomy and the chemotherapy treatments that follow. Her friends have vowed to refrain from the in-fighting and pettiness that have sometimes characterized their past reunions in order to make Lil's last few months as serene as possible. No one anticipates a mistake on the part of Bluefish Cove's usually dependable and discreet real estate agent, however. The woman has rented one of the cottages to A gasp! A a straight woman named Eva. A sheltered housewife on the run from her control freak husband, Eva guilelessly intrudes on the lesbian crowd, inexorably altering the course of everyone's summer.
A playwright, novelist, and actress, Chambers began her career in the late Fifties, distinguishing herself through her frank approach to homosexuality in many of her plays. She also enjoyed success as a television writer, receiving a Writer's Guild of America award in 1973 for her work on the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. Sadly, her career was cut short when she died from cancer in 1983 at the age of 46. Seven years before her death, in response to a friend's struggle with the disease, she wrote Bluefish Cove. She had not yet been diagnosed with cancer herself. In her own words, included in the New River Rep program notes, Chambers comments on that irony: "Perhaps the most interesting thing in this strange situation where life seems to be imitating art is that I discovered Lil's responses were not fiction, that the work had been honest and real." Indeed, Chambers's writing, as well as Barbara Sloan's unflinchingly passionate performance as Lil, captures the denial, the paralyzing fear, the striving to remain optimistic, and the desire to live inherent in a struggle with a life-threatening illness.
Along with its unsparing evocation of the emotional ravages of a fatal disease, the play compellingly depicts the closeness of a group of friends that functions as a family in times of crisis. These strengths compensate for a narrative contrivance that in less capable hands might appear ludicrous: Straight Eva proves naive to the point of childishness, first about the sexual proclivities of her summer neighbors, then about Lil's medical condition. Yet less than 24 hours after fleeing her marriage (fueled by a feminist awakening that smacks of the spirit of the Seventies), the ingenuous runaway hausfrau who has never slept with anyone other than hubby acknowledges her sexual feelings for a woman. It's a testament to McMillan-Perez's shrewd direction and Teresa Turiano's full appreciation of her character that Eva's "conversion" seems believable.
Sloan and Turiano's standout performances are complemented by Wendy Michaels's effortless depiction of Lil's best friend Annie and Karen Brown's dry turn as Kitty. Laura Burnett, Carol Ann Ready, Christy Antonio, and Kathleen Emrich round out the circle with equally genuine portrayals.
At times, Chambers's script, weighted down with exposition about lesbian lifestyles, sounds more like a novel than a drama; McMillan-Perez could remedy this by picking up the pace a little and tightening the yawning pauses between scene changes. In the long run, however, this mostly engaging production will tug on your heartstrings and leave you moved both by the power of love and friendship and by the courage required to live a meaningful life in the face of death and loss.
To hear Juan F. Cejas speak passionately about the possibilities for live theater in South Florida, you wonder how the former artistic director of ACME Acting Company managed to stay away from the stage for a year and a half. Back in December 1994, however, instead of having energy to burn, the guy was seriously burnt out. After ten exhausting seasons (1985-1994) as the prime mover behind the innovative but financially hobbled ACME, Cejas took a break. "As they say about the theater," he quips in a recent telephone interview, "you can make a killing but you can't make a living."