By JACK LYONS, Desert Local News
The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company (DETC) of Palm Springs launched its 2021-2022 season in its new home at Theatre # 3, inside the Palm Springs Cultural Center with the poignant drama The Beebo Brinker Chronicles on Friday, December 10, 2021.
The award-winning theatrical company founded by playwright and director Tony Padilla, now under the stewardship of Jerome Elliott as artistic director and Shawn Abramowitz as executive director, delivers a potent production and story that revolves around the subject that the great American playwright Tennessee Williams called – ‘that of which we dare not speak’ – onstage homosexuality and lesbianism.
The play written by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman, is based on the lesbian pulp novels of Ann Bannon. The titles of these books were intended to titillate the reader and draw men and women equally with such lurid titles as “’I am a Woman,” “Women in the Shadows” and “Journey to a Woman” in the 1950s. Most of these novels were published in soft covers, which some referred to as the bane of main stream hard cover book publishers. Everybody wanted to secretly read them. And they served millions of women as bedside reading companions worldwide.
The opening night audience was treated to insightful special remarks before the play began from the queen of lesbian literature, author Ann Bannon, as a way of giving both straight and gay audience members the background of lesbian life style in New York City in the 1950s and ‘60s. Resistance and fear of being “outed” and stigmatized by straight society if one championed or accepted the “radical life style” kept millions of gay women in the closet as parents, homemakers, employees, business executives and relatives. Back in the 1920s, relationships like the characters in this play would say that Beth and Laura must have a “Boston marriage” – a coded label for gay women living together.
Insightfully and sensitively directed by award-winning daytime TV star, actor and director Judith Chapman of “The Young and the Restless,” the work nicely culls the story from Ms. Bannon’s many books. The play is not a traditional linear beginning, middle and end type of story. It flashes forward and backward at times. But, it never loses sight of its core mission to reveal and relate some heartfelt lesbian issues to the audience – issues we all share on planet earth as human beings. The drill never changes: birth, life, death and the beat starts all over again.
Beebo Brinker, the play’s title character is portrayed by Alexana Thomas as a sexual predator and proprietor of her bar called The Cellar and Beebo is just as repugnant as Harvey Weinstein was in his hotel assignations with starlets. The bar called The Cellar is a safe harbor meeting place frequented by lesbians and occasionally gay men where all can meet and relax, free from being hassled by the local police.
The meatiest roles in this achingly poignant and potent drama however, centers around two young women sensationally portrayed by Phylicia Mason and Lizzie Schmelling, as Beth and Laura respectfully, who were attracted to one another in their late teens, but never consummated their feelings beyond friendship.
It’s now nine years later. Neither of them has seen the other. Beth is now married to Charlie, played by Miguel Arballo, and they have two children. Beth, however, is having second thoughts about her marriage to Charlie and regrets that she never scratched that itch about her feelings for Laura years ago. Now, in a snap judgment decision, Beth leaves California for New York to see if old flames can once again reignite the two friends in a more permanent arrangement.
The meeting between Laura and Beth sucks all the air out of the theatre in anticipation of what is about to unfold when they finally meet again. But no spoiler alerts from me from this point on. One will just have to see it for one’s self. This much, however, I will say. It is said that the eyes are our window into the souls of those we meet.
The onstage eye contact between these two fearless actors Lizzie Schmelling and Phylicia Mason is palpable, riveting and compelling to watch. All of the romantic love scenes directed by Ms. Chapman are handled with the utmost of delicacy and taste. There are no seat-squirming moments to distract the magic that’s being created on the stage.
The remaining talented cast consists of Brent Anderson as Jack Mann, an aging gay man who decides he wants to turn in his playbook and retire, Tessa Gregory-Walker as Marcie and Alexana Thomas as Beebo Brinker.
The technical team of set designer Thomas L. Valach, whose bare bones set of risers would be even more comfortable for the actors who must lay on it in the love scenes if it just had a one-inch thick mat to protect and soften those writhing bodies, elbows and knees. I still remember his richly textured beautiful set he designed for Coyote StageWorks production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 two seasons ago. The lighting Designer is Kevin O’Shaunessy.
Desert Ensemble Theatre’s auspicious initial production at its new permanent home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center is off to a good start!
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles finishes its run on Sunday, December 19.