When lesbian/feminist playwright Jane Chambers wrote a truthful, loving play about eight women spending summer together at an East Coast beach resort, it became a surprise hit and shifted a paradigm. Last Summer at Bluefish Cove opened at the Actors Playhouse in New York City on Dec. 22, 1980. It went on to win Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, seven Hollywood DramaLogue Awards, numerous GLAAD awards and a Certificate of Outstanding Theatre from the City of Los Angeles. Its lead Jean Smart starred in television's Designing Women after gaining notice from her performance in Bluefish Cove.
Then the play seemed to just fade away.
"I think it got back-burnered by the AIDS epidemic, which erupted in full force about that time," Sharon Veselic muses thoughtfully.
Veselic directs a full production of the play for three performances this weekend, kicking off Denton Community Theatre's 2013 Point Bank Black Box series in high style. (The play was also given a staged reading in the 2011 Pride Performing Arts Festival at Uptown Players.)
Audiences will get to watch a seldom-produced classic that opened minds, hearts and stage possibilities in a major way over 30 years ago. Is it a gaggle of Birkenstock-wearing, hard-edged dykes bashing men and telling randy jokes? Hardly. This play is one of the most honest, heartfelt, eloquent explorations of lesbian/female identity you will ever see, emerging from an era where gender closets remained deep, dark and locked tight shut. Even so, it has amazing resonance, a universal appeal, for today.
Most of Veselic's 2013 cast aren't old enough to remember the social scene of the 1970s and were unfamiliar with the play before auditioning. It's written so well they say they have had no trouble relating to the characters' issues, and it doesn't feel dated. They appear to have fallen in love with the work during rehearsal. The cast members express strong respect for Veselic's directorial acumen. When she posted auditions for Bluefish Cove, they came to read out of curiosity, picking up on her enthusiasm. Sitting down with them, it's obvious that the admiration is mutual.
"Working with this cast has been a very rewarding experience," Veselic says. "They are smart, inquisitive and insightful. And seven out of eight are directors themselves. It's been a fun ride, for all of us."
The cast warms effusively to the play's humor, its quirkiness, its poignancy, and its fearless honesty. Every role offers real opportunity for depth of portrayal as opposed to the limitations of roles for women in most plays produced regionally.
They confess driving up to Denton for rehearsals nightly from Burleson, Arlington and Bedford has been challenging, but they consider it an honor to have become part of this production's core "family."
"Jane Chambers has given them a wonderful script to work with," Veselic says, "and it's now time that they give it to the audience."
◊ You can also read a version of this story on the author's blog, CriticalRant.