Life has never been easy for women who love other women. Last Summer at Bluefish Cove—written by Jane Chambers and widely regarded as the first production to portray lesbians in a positive light—takes a crack at illuminating the complexity of these women’s lives in the 70s and 80s. Directed by Sharon Veselic, this production at Dominion Stage is helping to remind audiences of the important role that women have played in queer theater history.
The plot revolves around a group of women who spend their summers together at the remote Bluefish Cove. Some of the women are friends, some are exes and some are currently partnered. Feisty womanizer Lil (Lori Brooks) is single and suffering from a terminal illness. Her world is turned upside down when the newly-divorced Eva Margolis (Katie Raymond) shows up at Bluefish Cove. Heterosexual and without a clue as to the reality of the other women’s relationships, Eva finds herself drawn to Lil. This, of course, presents enough of a conflict between the two to keep audiences hooked.
Lori Brooks is a perfect Lil. She is believably careless, despite her illness, and wonderful paired with Raymond’s wide-eyed Eva whose innocence about the situation she finds herself in requires a shift in her personality as she moves away from her past as a carefree housewife. Though the play is quite funny, these two really shine in the more dramatic moments.
It’s interesting to watch this play and see the archetypes that have emerged as a result: Heather Plank plays the butch sculptor/sculptress Annie, who has been in a relationship with her very femme partner Rae (Bryna Parlow) for nine years. Judy Lewis is Kitty, a closeted lesbian and public feminist author who is shacking up with her long-time secretary Rita Sanderson (Christine Tankersley). Rounding out the group is the wealthy sugar mama Sue (Gayle Nichols-Grimes) and her pretty, young and kept girlfriend Donna (Lindsey June).
The women all have fantastic chemistry and make for a believable group of longtime friends. The real strength of these actresses is in their ability to shift seamlessly between comedic and serious moments. Additionally, due the complicated relationships that have occurred between these women, they do a great job of balancing friendliness and animosity when the past is dragged into present conversations.
I was particularly impressed with how Chambers’ play accurately portrayed each “type” of lesbian common to these sorts of cliques, though the groupings may look different and use different terminology to identify themselves when they occur in less Eurocentric settings. It’s remarkable how characters from a play which premiered in 1980 seem like people you might know right here in 2019.
It’s very clear that a lot of effort went into the set design. Early in the play the main character, Lil, mentions having been a Girl Scout. There is a small canteen nearby with a Girl Scout logo on it. The amount of detail work in the set is impressive. Set Designer Matt Liptak, along with Set Painter Cathy Rieder, Set Decorator Sandy Dotson and Props Master Helen Bard-Sobola are to be commended for creating a coherent and interesting design which functions as both a beach and the interior of a house. Additionally, Projections and Special Effects Designer Jon Roberts brings a variety of scenery—including a distant lighthouse and a sky full of stars—to this production. It’s a unique treat that you wouldn’t typically see in a small-scale production.
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove is an important play for queer women, but it has a little something for everyone. It walks a fine line between a comedy and a tragedy. Ultimately, it is a fitting tribute to the strength of the women who dared to love who they loved in a hostile time and place. Watching this play reminds the audience of the importance of marriage rights for queer people. While love always comes first, the million little legal privileges afforded to those who have a civil marriage are starkly obvious when you take them away—that’s part of the tragedy of the show. Remembering a time when things were much different, especially due to the recent attacks on LGBTQ rights, can still sting a little.
Dominion Stage’s Last Summer at Bluefish Cove is—ultimately—a heart-wrenching, funny and tender production which brings a much-needed second look to the historical contributions of queer women to theater. This show is fantastic and I’d encourage everyone to give it a try. Even if you don’t see yourself reflected in the character’s lives, you are sure to learn something.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Last Summer at Bluefish Cove plays through November 23, 2019, at Dominion Stage at Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two—2700 South Lang Street in Arlington, Virginia. Tickets can be purchased online.