Eight Is Enough

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.

Stage Whispers
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."

Acting in films, coordinating photography shoots, swimming in the ocean, and improving his cooking A Cejas spent his time "doing all the things I was depriving myself of for the last ten years, and I managed to have a real good time." But now Cejas is back, and Florida Shakespeare Theatre (FST) has him.

After a nationwide search for a head creative honcho for its new, state-of-the art facility in Coral Gables's Biltmore Hotel, FST has named Cejas its artistic director. "We're all thrilled that he's going to be directing again," notes FST executive director Ellen Beck. "I can't think of anyone else in town with the same directorial hand. He breathes life and sensitivity and real emotion into a work."

Regenerated by his time off, Cejas seems more than ready to tackle this new challenge, and he cites key factors that he believes will make artistic directing for the Shakespeare Theatre less enervating than his work for ACME. "Don't get me wrong," he insists about his experience with ACME. "The folks I worked with are all my friends and we get along fabulously." But without adequate funding, with a minuscule staff, and with rents on Miami Beach (where ACME originated) growing more prohibitive each month, Cejas and his crew could never get ahead financially. Over the years, working for free lost its charms. By contrast, at FST, Cejas points out, "there's a support staff in this company. There's an executive director, there's a development director, there's an administrative assistant. There's a permanent space that's probably the most plush and elegant and best-equipped little theater you've ever set foot in. And my job is to produce and direct."

The opening of FST's Biltmore space has been a long time coming. The company's old home A the Minorca Playhouse in the Gables A was trashed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992; the last full season FST managed to produce was in 1993-94, at Teatro Avante's El Carrusel Theatre. Last year saw a two-week run of Romeo and Juliet at the Colony Theater, and this spring the company produced Hamlet for the Dade County Public Schools. All the while Beck and her fifteen-member board (which includes former FST director Rose McVeigh) struggled to raise funds, secure construction services, and comply with building permits in order to set up shop at the Biltmore. Using seed money from a hurricane recovery grant, funds from a Metro-Dade capital development grant, and services donated by electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, architects, and plumbers, FST is finally scheduled to open its 164-seat theater on September 20 with John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Cejas. (The space also features a courtyard area that will double as a lobby, as well as a 450- to 500-seat arena for mounting outdoor productions of Shakespeare.)

"We would like to originate new work," asserts Cejas, "and we would like to mount major revivals and move shows north, and I don't mean Broward. I don't want much. All I want is a Tony Award and a three-picture deal." FST's new relationship with veteran Broadway and Hollywood producer Arthur Whitelaw just might help Cejas realize his ambitions.

Whitelaw, producer of shows such as Butterflies Are Free and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, as well as works for HBO, PBS and NBC, moved to South Florida three years ago to work for public TV station WPBT. Like Cejas, he had taken a hiatus from the theater and was itching to get back to the stage. A mutual friend hooked him up with FST, with Whitelaw signing on as a coproducer in the Biltmore space; his company, Americas Theatre Group, will present shows in repertory with FST. "They'll do a play, we'll do a play, they'll do a play," Whitelaw explains. "We're all going to work on each other's shows. And there's a third unit that's part of this, too, in Dorset, Vermont. I'm on the board of American Theatre Works, a wonderful regional theater up there that's been going for twenty years. We'll start things here and then take them up there and then possibly to New York or to London, or we may develop something into a movie or for television down here. And we'll share where we each have strengths because we all add something to the mix that the others don't have."

Both Beck and Cejas agree that Whitelaw's expertise will be invaluable. "He's so experienced and we'll learn so much from him," Cejas says. "It's such a wonderful advantage." Adds Beck, "It's going to be an incredible asset to work with him."

Under Whitelaw's auspices, the musical You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and its sequel Snoopy are slated to open around Thanksgiving and play in repertory through February. Other planned FST productions during the year include Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in rep, plus Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. For further information, call 446-1116.


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