Footsteps Theatre Company

at Live Theatre

In the 1970s, in the wake of the birth of “gay liberation” at the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, there emerged a genre loosely defined as the “gay play.” Developed by a loose-knit group of writers–male and female, mostly New York-based, newcomers and seasoned professionals alike–the gay-play movement sought to create a body of dramatic literature that presented gay and lesbian characters positively and affirmatively (though not uncritically), not as outsiders and oddities but as whole human beings. Previously, gay characters in the American theater had usually been either played down and made invisible or played up for sensationalism; the subject of homosexuality itself was invariably presented in terms of crisis rather than simply as a fact of life.

Before she died of a brain tumor in 1983 at age 46, Jane Chambers was one of the most important contributors to the gay-play movement; her best-known work was Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. First presented in 1980 by the Glines (the gay performing arts organization that also gave the world Torch Song Trilogy) with a cast that included Jean Smart (now of Designing Women) and Chicagoan Ellie Schadt, Bluefish Cove proved a “crossover” success in subsequent off-Broadway and regional productions. Now it is having what is apparently its first professional Chicago staging at the hands of a new women’s company, the Footsteps Theatre.

Chambers’s aim, like that of other writers in the gay-play movement, was to offer her audiences something they had been denied by mainstream drama: lesbian characters who were secure in their sexuality and comfortable with each other’s friendship. That sounds like such a simple thing; but consider that the two most influential dramas about lesbians in 20th-century theater are Lillian Hellman’s outrageously homophobic The Children’s Hour (in which the closeted lesbian heroine commits suicide out of guilt for feeling an “unnatural” attraction to her straight best friend) and Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George (in which the defiant dyke heroine is left jobless and loverless because she refuses to act discreetly in “normal” society), and you’ll see just how ambitious Chambers’s intention was. New York audiences in 1980 found Bluefish Cove an exhilarating and liberating experience simply because its protagonists’ sexual orientation was never questioned; they actually reveled in the fact that Chambers had written “a soap opera for us.”

For soap opera is exactly what Bluefish Cove is–and Chambers, winner of a 1973 National Writers Guild Award for her work on the TV series Search for Tomorrow, was a specialist in the sudsy style. Her play has plenty of sharp and ribald humor, sharply defined characters, and a good deal of truthfulness in its observations of a certain class of people–bourgeois, upper-middle-class Manhattan lesbians who live for their summer rental cottages in the beach colonies along Long Island Sound. But at its core, Bluefish Cove is made-for-TV melodrama that shamelessly manipulates the audience with tear-jerking plot twists and glorifies the search for personal fulfillment at the expense of all but the most rudimentary and self-centered social consciousness.

Chambers’s comedy-drama starts out strangely similar to Mart Crowley’s 1967 study of self-loathing, The Boys in the Band: at a party attended by seven homosexuals bound by long-term friendships and romantic attachments. Into this Long Island Lesbos inadvertently wanders Eva, an unaware heterosexual, whose naivete (“When is your husband coming?” she asks one member of the all-female coterie) makes for a brief round of double-entendre comedy until the bubble is burst by a flamboyant loudmouth. In Boys in the Band, the shocked straight escaped into the night, his assumptions shaken but his heterosexual commitment reaffirmed; in Bluefish Cove, Eva is a “blatant latent” who soon becomes the lover of the play’s central character, Lil.

Eva and Lil are mirror images of each other (making one wonder whether their names are references to the Eve and Lilith of Hebrew mythology). Lil is as sexually experienced and confident as Eva is insecure; where Eva is afraid of being alone and independent, Lil hides her fear of intimacy and inability to share love behind a wall of self-reliant bravado. The two teach each other to love, then, having baited us with the wonder of new romance, Chambers springs the trap: Lil is fighting a losing battle with cancer. The sharp comedy of the first act gives way to maudlin sentiment and increasingly schematic characterization, and the rest of the play traces Lil’s passage from denial to acceptance to the inevitable–what can you say about a girl who died?–in tandem with Eva’s long-delayed assumption of control over her own life.

A piece like this is undeniably affecting if you accept its premises, its loose ends and lapses of logic. And the knowledge of Chambers’s own battle with cancer gives the play a potency it would not otherwise possess. But, finally, Bluefish Cove’s only special distinction is achieved by default; it seems strong when viewed against the general paucity of decently written lesbian-affirmative plays.

I’m particularly bothered by the questions Bluefish Cove doesn’t ask. In trying to avoid the stereotypical presentation of homosexual self-acceptance as a traumatic process, Chambers treats Eva’s transition from straight to gay as an easily arrived at nonevent, robbing this crucial development of both credibility and dramatic tension. There is never any question as to whether Lil and Eva will get together, and so no suspense.

More generally, Chambers never treats lesbianism as anything other than a matter of sexual orientation. The one character who advocates feminist thinking–Kitty Cochrane, the author of The Female Sexual Imperative, whose ideology has prompted Eva to leave her husband, paving the way for her accidental arrival at Bluefish Cove–is treated satirically, as a hypocrite (a homosexual preaching to straight women about sex, a lesbian afraid to come out of the closet because it might hurt her writing career) and a politically overcorrect ideologue. Tellingly, Kitty only warms up when she decides to cut back her writing in favor of a hands-on medical practice. In Chambers’s view–at least in the view that emerges from this production of the play–homosexuality is an embattled condition in a hostile world, and the only solution is the salving power of love. This ghettoized mentality is reinforced by the alternate bursts of catty comedy and self-pitying sermons with which Chambers’s characters address the specifics of their life-styles–lectures about legal and emotional prejudice faced by lesbians and waspish jokes concerning sexual peccadilloes. In 1980, most of this seemed brave and smart; in 1988, it’s inadequate.

Which is not to say that the problems Chambers addressed don’t still exist. They do–not only for lesbians but for women in general. That’s why Chambers’s play remains producible; it hasn’t been replaced by newer and better plays that offer eight meaty roles for women. The Footsteps Theatre Company, formed specifically to produce plays that offer strong female parts, can’t be accused of ignoring a wealth of superior material in favor of Bluefish Cove. It can, however, be accused of failing to give this play its due.

Working in an admittedly tiny space and with limited resources, Footsteps’ actors seem to be trying a subtle approach to this unsubtle script; as a result, under Robert Scogin’s direction, there are far too many dead moments and mid-range emotions in a play that needs sharp comic timing and unfettered emotional intensity.

The eight women assembled for the cast are all good actors. I felt they were performing with integrity and genuine emotional investment, I believed their characters, but I didn’t believe the play those characters inhabited. Susan V. Booth, playing the feisty but defensive Lil, has adopted a set of quirky mannerisms that become increasingly annoying as Lil’s plight becomes more desperate; of the other performers, only Catherine Marcroft, a lovely woman with a tangible vulnerability, brings to Eva the kind of presence and vitality needed to fill in the gaps in Chambers’s writing. When the most stirring emotion in the evening comes from the Della Reese records played over the theater’s sound system before the show starts, something’s definitely wrong.