Footsteps Theatre

Lesbians secluded in an east coast cottage–sometimes flirting, sometimes flitting about, sometimes committing to the long haul. The territory is familiar to anyone who knows the plays of Jane Chambers, the late writer for stage and television whose distinctive contribution was to establish a genre of gay-positive soap opera.

“Domestic drama” might be a less pejorative-sounding term–but Chambers, who died in 1983 of a brain tumor, had no qualms about the soap-opera label. She was well established as a writer for TV shows like Search for Tomorrow and Somerset–until the success of her lesbian-themed play A Late Snow led the TV industry to blackball her, according to her lover and literary executor Beth Allen. That focused Chambers’s attention on the stage, for which she subsequently wrote the eerily prophetic drama Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, about a woman dying of cancer, and the goofily comic My Blue Heaven. All these plays concern a group of lesbians–friends, rivals, current and former lovers–looking for a balance of happiness, connection, and independence in the rural east-coast areas that Chambers loved so much.

To that canon can now be added Eye of the Gull, an unfinished work written around 1971 (probably right after A Late Snow). Receiving its world premiere at Footsteps Theatre, this play has been “revised” by Vita Dennis with Allen’s approval; Dennis says most of her work has been reshaping, updating, and trimming (she’s compressed the play from three acts to two), work she believes Chambers would have done if she’d been alive. Like the best of Chambers’s sometimes flawed but always affecting work, it’s funny, warm, moving, and shrewdly compassionate in its observation of the traps people lay for themselves.

Pat and Maggie are longtime lovers who run a guest house on an island off the New England coast. Hardly ritzy, their hostelry is successful on the basis of word of mouth among lesbians looking for a nice, quiet place where they can be themselves without fear of exposure or ridicule–except from each other. Maggie and Pat’s 15-year affair is in serious trouble; like many marriages, it’s become both stifled and anchored by the kids. In this case “the kids” are the business, the regular guests, and Pat’s developmentally disabled 27-year-old sister Sara, with whom Pat perpetuates the mutually dependent relationship established by their mother. Maggie, on the other hand, encourages Sara to be independent–partly because it’s what is really best for the younger woman, and partly because after a few years of living with Maggie and Pat Sara is inadvertently straining their relationship to the breaking point. She even sleeps in their bedroom–so sleeping is all any of them do there.

Around this central crisis (which Allen acknowledges is based on the situation of people she and Chambers knew) Chambers arranges a series of subsidiary relationships whose imperfections and dishonesty contrast with the essential stability of Maggie and Pat’s relationship. Some of these stories betray Chambers’s television plotting gimmicks. Margo, a closeted middle-aged actress, arrives reluctantly with her younger girlfriend in tow–only to discover that the girlfriend’s ex-lover is also there, keeping company with a starstruck young thing who quickly takes Margo in hand. Maggie and Pat’s oldest friends arrive from the suburbs of Connecticut, complete with their role-playing pretensions of breadwinner and homemaker (and their lies about being faithful to each other). Against these characters and others the retarded Sara stands like an idiot savant, teaching the value of honesty because she cannot help but be honest.

To say more would give away too much; suffice it to say that everyone gets what she needs, which isn’t always what she wants, and everyone learns a lot more from it all than most of us do in real life. Along the path to wisdom they develop into a group of interesting, well-defined, funny, recognizable characters–always Chambers’s strongest suit.

The Footsteps production is homey and likable, though most of the actresses are too young to be fully convincing as middle-aged women trying to shake free of pseudoheterosexual role-playing. (Though the play has been updated, it still reflects Chambers’s perspective as a lesbian who came of age in the 50s, when such role-playing was the norm.) The strongest performances come from Patrice Fletcher as the anxious actress Margo and Elizabeth Holmes as gawky, simpleminded, but insightful Sara–in large part because they are just the right ages, an important factor in a play that explores the tension between innocence and experience. Vita Dennis and Phila Broich are engaging as Maggie and Pat, though once again they’re clearly too young. Robin Stanton directs with a wry understatement that counteracts the script’s potential for melodrama; Becky Flory’s multileveled set looks cramped and thrown-together, just like a guest house of that time would have been. Most important, the collected works of one of America’s most distinctive writers have just grown one very significant notch.