Writer: Liza Birkenmeier
Director: Katie Brook
Reviewer: Alithea Howes
Dr. Ride’s American Beach House is a rare jewel of a play, one that this reviewer is very glad that Ars Nova managed to find. In lesser hands, this play could seem boring or pointless because so much of its pathos, tension, and story arc lie in the things that the characters don’t say. It centers around a relationship that is never fully articulated This show takes place in the 80’s, a time when being out was still very dangerous. In a society where male affection is heavily policed, and women’s sexuality is routinely dismissed, being closeted is a little bit easier for queer women. Two women displaying affection, even sharing a bed, is still not considered definitively queer.
This is a play about “gals being pals” in both the literal and ironic sense. Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey)are very good friends, but they’re also more than that. Theirs is type of female friendship that shades into romantic love so slowly that the friends in question might not notice it, or at least can easily deny it.
These friends can call themselves straight while holding hands, sitting on each other’s laps, and singing romantic songs to each other while slow dancing alone. This is not so much a Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name as it is a Love That Doesn’t Want To Make It Weird. Their relationship is nudged out of complacency when Matilda invites Meg (Marga Gomez,) to join their Friday night “book club.” Up to this point, their book club had just been the two women drinking alone on a roof every Friday. While talking about books is optional, or even discouraged, it is repeatedly reminded that talking about men is not allowed.
Meg is the only out lesbian in a play that is, arguably, entirely peopled with lesbians. This makes her the much-needed voice of reason. She is a woman who laughs “Of course not!” when asked if she has a husband. She is a woman that says, matter of factly, that Sally Ride is a lesbian. She is a woman who (finally!) asks “Are you two in a sexual relationship or not?”
Even when finally questioned, a full answer never comes out. While their love is obvious, it remains amorphous. Is it a one sided love, or simply a repressed one? If their lives took place 30 years later, would they have gotten married in college and lived happily ever after? While Harriet is clearly a lesbian, Matilda is more ambiguous. Did she invite Meg as a possible partner for Harriet? Does she return Harriet’s feelings or does she just like the attention? Is she a lesbian or just a Leo? The central drama hinges on whether or not Harriet is willing to wait around to find out.
Director Katie Brook and her cast masterfully tease out the subtext and humor of this play. Countless mundane lines become laugh-out-loud funny in their delivery. An act as simple and silly as jumping around to Motorhead becomes achingly moving. Even the part of landlord Norma (Susan Blommaert,) which could have easily been a throwaway character, is given depth, heart, and humor. The world created by set designer Kimie Nishikawa, costume designer Melissa Ng, lighting designer Oona Curley, and sound designer Ben Williams is as thoughtful and detailed as the acting with carefully distressed chairs, subtly period appropriate clothing, and a soundtrack that is blessedly free of 80’s music cliches. The production team creates a seamless entrance into this small slice of life. The effect is surprisingly intimate.
The audience is invited into the lives of these women. In them, they recognize their friends, our friendships, themselves. The characters’ small lives match those of the viewer. Dr. Ride’s American Beach House is a production that quietly sneaks into your heart, staying with you days after the curtain call.
Runs Until 23 November 2019 | Photo Credit: Ben Arons