There are some shows that you attend already cheering for their success. “The Beebo Brinker Chronicals” is the culmination of a nearly year-old celebration for the lesbian and gay community of the classic, 1950's pulp fiction novels of Ann Bannon. These “forbidden” stories of young women coming to terms with their sexual orientation and with each other during the repressive, shame-filled decades before Stonewall have become important cultural icons of GLBT history.
Centered around a charismatic, “mannish” lesbian who is a central figure in the Greenwich Village underground, Beebo Brinker becomes the center of several dizzying relationships involving Beth and Laura. Beth loses her college lover, Laura, when she abandons her at the train station as she sets out for New York and the life of the demimonde. Beth is an insecure, small town girl who attempts to escape from her “unnatural” desires into an unsatisfying marriage with a conventional man. Laura is a more sophisticated, braver woman who believes, hopes, that she can have a stable relationship if she simply allows herself to love Beebo. The three of them weave in and out of each other's lives over the course of a decade and it ultimately leads to none of them achieving anything like meaningful permanence or satisfaction in their relationships
This production, directed by Katjana Vadeboncoeur, is a theatricalizaton by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman of three of Bannon's novels. It was first produced off-Broadway by Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner. It conflates the intricate and complex story-lines of the novels into a pretty coherent narrative, but it's real challenge is in creating the style and attitude of what seems like a quite distant period while allowing all of the characters to balance the immediacy of their conflicted and largely internalized struggles.
Vadeboncoeur has a rather uneven cast here, with a very strong lead and generally effective women but much less successful performances by the men. Her biggest deficit, however, was in maintaining a consistent performance style to inform the sorrow, shame, passion and conflict of gay women and men living in that cruelly intolerant world. At times the show is almost campy, the ironic humor of the dispossessed. At other times the drama feels genuine and quite touching, the people truly in need of meaningful connection and authentic love, but then it too often disavows that sincerity with a melodramatic gesture. The contradictory effect of an occasionally light or artificial performance style with the serious drama denies the characters the depth and integrity of real people facing real hope and loss, and does not allow the story to create a history with dimension and substance.
Rhonda J. Soikowski was very good as Beebo, easily the best performance of the evening. She enters the stage with swagger and style and a powerful sense of knowing and being exactly who she is. Best of all, her performance is always proportionate, requiring us to look deeper to see what's going on inside her. As Laura, Polly Wood has a more superficial acting style but manages to still feel believable, especially in the later scenes when she and Beebo have been together for a while. I liked Opal Peachy as Beth because I accepted the seriousness of her pain and conflict, the difficulty of letting go of her husband and children for a future that is not only uncertain, but largely stacked against her. In these relationships I believed the passion and desire they had for each other, and I believed it was set within a real world.
I had nothing of that from Tom Stewart as Jack Mann, a gay man at the aging end of a career of bedding much younger men for very brief periods. Stewart gave us acting that was all “ack” and I never believed a word he said was anything other than text that had been scripted for him to deliver. He also never had a real sense of connection with the others. This was disastrous for the show not only because it subverted the other's drama, but because it denied his character the consequence, the terrible sadness and self-defeat of committing his life to meaningless self-satisfaction and acceptance of the world's marginalization.
As Beth's husband, Charlie, Christopher Dodge was earnest in presenting a man who hasn't the slightest understanding of why his wife is not happy with a world that is everything he believes a wife should want. Although I bought his sincerity, I never quite felt the depth of his disappointment, hurt and suppressed anger.
The other women in the cast, Marcie (Beth's straight friend and roommate in the city), Lili (an altogether too easy dalliance) and Nina Spicer (the writer who is more worldly than anyone else in Beth's world) were all played toward the cartoonish end of the reality spectrum. Certainly they were sexy, but their sexuality was never as complicated as it should have been.
Not all of the fault in this production goes to the performance. The script itself lacks as strong sense of rising action and inevitable resolution, and while it provides opportunity for us to return to that earlier time, it does not fully create the sociological and emotional environment. Given much stronger, more balanced and complex characters it may have been less unsatisfying.
I really wanted this show to work because I think it is important material. Those novels, many of which probably spent most of their lives stuffed beneath innumerable mattresses now belong in the light of day. It seems to me that they are even more important now, in our period of greatly increased acceptance paralleled by persistent discrimination, because they capture a time when lesbians and gay men could not even imagine a world in which they might lead their lives openly and with pride. They are also important reminders that self-censorship and negative self-images can be as restrictive, damning and harmful as anything imposed from the outside.
“The Beebo Brinker Chronicles” could have been a theatrical experience as significant and powerful as the effort that went into producing it in Seattle. Sadly, it wasn't.
PICTURED ABOVE: Rhonda J. Soikowski (as Beebo Brinker) and Opal Peachy explore the love that dare not speak its name in the Seattle Premiere of THE BEEBO BRINKER CHRONICLES.
PHOTO BY: Greg Holloway.