Silences speak loudly in the first Maryland production of The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. This professional production by Peter’s Alley Theatre group, features two tender, powerful performances by Jasmine Brooks and Anna Fagan, and should be a must-see for anyone interested in realistic theatre that tests the boundaries of possibility and love.
This tightly-woven, two-person play has been lauded with several awards including the 2018 LGBTQ Drama Lambda Literary Awards and the 2018 Edgerton New American Play Award. In 2016, the Washington Post included it among its Top 20 Plays of the 2016 season. The Gulf, which received its world premiere exactly three years ago at Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre, would be worth seeing on any stage. This production lives up to the accolades and awards given to the playwright, an Alabama native and current D.C. resident – and shimmers with the performances of Jasmine Brooks as Kendra and Anna Fagan as Betty.
The ninety-minute drama starts out slow and steady. All the action takes place on a broken-down outboard—set amid a spare stage with gentle lighting and background sounds of water, of insects buzzing and water lapping. The lighting design by Peter Caress along with the sound design by Reid May transports us from Bethesda down to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The space at the Writer’s Center is used to its fullest.
At first, The Gulf seems to be about long friendship between the women, one fishing, one not; one eager to leave their small town, one not. The play explores two lives adrift in dead-end jobs, with Betty a bartender, and Kendra, someone who works in sewage—a job never fully explained but with metaphorical overtones of waste and wasted lives. The play, however, is about more than country slackers. The Gulf is about two women working through their relationship. They are long-time lovers.
Jasmine Brooks as Kendra offers a high-energy, passionate performance as someone who does not want to be pushed too far, who does not want her life upended by her partner’s plans for more education, for leaving the small-town life. She slumps over her fishing rod and we sense overwhelming frustration in her body as well as her words. Near the end, one line is played perfectly by Brooks. When her character argues against the insistence of her partner that they both need to change their lives, she states: “I am not the answer.” This is true in any relationship, and it is particularly poignant in this deeply moving production of The Gulf.
Anna Fagan as Betty offers a more wistful, but just as gripping performance. She approaches Kendra repeatedly, quoting from the classic, What Color is Your Parachute?, about changing careers, about returning to school, and as the sexual tension rises, about loving her.
As the boat stalls, the tension explodes in arguments over life goals and accusations of affairs. Even more pointedly, the two women simmer in silences that are held in the air by the two actors and speak as loudly as their words. Through their transcendent performances, we believe they are on this boat; we believe they are in love and struggling.
Aly B. Ettman, who is also the Producing Artistic Director and founder of Peter’s Alley, shows a sure hand in the direction. Every small movement in the boat is intentional and raises the tension and the stakes. When at one point each of the characters must go into the waters, one fully imagines that the simple black stage is teeming with alligators, brain-eating amoebas, and entangling tree roots. When night falls with a gentle dimming of lights and the frisson of insects and lapping waters rising, the characters, warily, silently entwine, and it feels like they are coming from distance ports into one another’s arms.
Peter’s Alley presents an evocative and thought-provoking production of The Gulf – one that should put Jasmine Brooks and Anna Fagan on everyone’s year-end ‘to watch’ list in 2019.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.