New initiative Women of Wilton (WOW)—a project of Ronnie Larsen of Plays of Wilton and Nicole Stodard of Thinking Cap Theatre—is getting off to a great start with a seriously wow-worthy production of Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. Written during the late 70s and first produced in 1980, this play by openly lesbian playwright Jane Chambers was considered monumental for its time. This is primarily due to the fact that it was one of the first commercially successful works to portray gay women as full-fledged, well-rounded human beings as opposed to tortured by self-hatred or as stereotype-ridden caricatures.
And while there are certainly ways in which the pioneering play shows its age, the way in which it showcases the remarkable strength of the bonds that form between women—be they romantic or platonic ones—ultimately allows it to stand the test of time well enough to be worthy of this invigorating revival. With eight strong female characters and zero male ones, the play is also refreshingly free of patriarchal influence, with the exception of new arrival Eva’s references to an odious-sounding George, the husband from whom she has only recently separated.
She’s a new arrival to the Cove referred to in the title, an idyllic beach enclave which only lesbians have traditionally escaped to each summer to hide away from the heterosexual gaze. And though this setting also mercifully spares the characters from dealing with homophobia within the confines of the play, in echoing reality, the work does naturally contain a few references to the hardships their sexuality has caused them outside of it.
In fact, in a way, the specter of homophobia consumes most of the first act. This is because Eva is revealed to be an unsuspecting straight interloper in this lesbian haven, having been led astray by a real estate agent who made an incorrect assumption about her lifestyle. So, when Lil, not realizing Eva was unaware of the Cove’s reputation, invites Eva to a party to take place that night, the groups’ very real fear that coming out of the closet could have damaging repercussions leads to an elaborate and hilarious charade in which the characters try their utmost to hide the gloriously gay truth.
Particularly worried is Kitty, a former gynecologist turned activist and feminist author, who is afraid her primarily straight readers would find her advice less credible if they knew that she was a “dyke.” But as most astute audience members can probably predict, Eva eventually proves herself not only not to be a bigot but also not to be so straight as she unthinkingly assumed she was given that compulsory heterosexuality was the only model she had to work with.
Thus, Eva quickly becomes embroiled in a romance with Lil, the only other singleton in the group. And it seems to be a match made in heaven, save for one serious obstacle regarding Lil’s future that is first hinted at and slowly made explicit over the course of the play, meaning I’ll try to leave some room for surprise by not spoiling it any further. And though this particular twist eventually steers the play towards melodrama in Act 2 after a more naturalistic Act 1, it’s melodrama of an altogether amiable sort, like the kind you’d find yourself enraptured by in your favorite guilty-pleasure TV show—a sort of theatrical beach read, if you will.
Additionally, it seems that in taking the time to flesh out so many characters, Chambers may have neglected to fully develop its central ones and their budding romance, which perhaps robs the plot and its conclusion of some potential gravity. Still, between moments of insight into hot topics and a story that allows the characters to transform through love, friendship, and loss, the play makes for a tremendously affecting evening, with plenty of memorable humor to be had along the way.
This is especially true given the talented cast and production team working to animate these characters’ journeys. Director Nicole Stodard excels in fostering a remarkably natural-seeming chemistry among these performers, both in terms of the romantic chemistry between four sets of very different couples and the overall synergy of the women as a warm, familiar, and eminently likable group of friends.
Following her stunning turn in Rotterdam earlier this season, it’s no surprise that Autumn Kioti delivers another incredible performance as Lil, mastering both the character’s lovable, charming exterior and the inner turmoil inherent to her arc. As her eventual lover Eva, Bree-Anna Obst was also quite effective, especially in the two’s superbly-sexually-charged scenes with one another.
Sabrina Lynn Gore well-balances confidence and neurosis in her strong portrayal of Kitty, and Carey Brianna Hart makes the most of a relatively underwritten role as Rita, the former’s secretary and secret lover. To a lesser extent re: underwritten, the same could be said of Leah Sessa’s appearance as the sassy former housewife Rae, who considers herself “‘married” to sculptor/sculptress Annie.
Yet, as Annie herself, Melissa Ann Hubicsak gives an impressive, distinct, and sensitive performance given somewhat more to work with, as the oldest friend of Lil’s and thus one of the characters most affected by her painful trajectory. Then, with her down to earth manner, actress Beverly Blanchette makes her character Sue seem surprisingly sympathetic, given that she is a wealthy woman a little older than the others’ middle age who has a habit of “keeping” younger companions. Accordingly, Sue’s current consort of three years is a spoiled twenty-something named Donna, played perfectly by Therese Adelina with plenty of sensuality and just as much self-centered irreverence.
Evocative costumes, also designed by Stodard, too have a hand in crystallizing each character by visually distinguishing their “vibes”, from Donna’s ostentatious leopard print, to Lil’s casual outdoorsy style, to Sue’s upscale business-like attire. Divided into a beach exterior and cabin interior, a set by Melquisedel Dominguez makes for a cozy coastal playing space, with the rest of the show’s technical elements being similarly effective in illuminating and enhancing the story.
Even aside from the fact that the play’s portrayal of a cohort of lesbians living full, productive lives is still out of the ordinary enough to make this production a win representation-wise, in the end, this moving evening of theatre is also one that should be relatively accessible to and entertaining for audience members of basically all stripes.
Meanwhile, the fact that the show’s been sold-out or close to it for most of its run so far both demonstrates the positive buzz it’s been generating and the fact that more women-centric stories—including lesbian-centric stories—can and should be seen across South Florida. So, I encourage anyone in the mood for a sweet and sexy story of summer love that just happens to be gay love to make the time to check out Last Summer At Bluefish Cove ,at the Foundry until only this August 20th!
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!