(l to r) Deanna Myers and Kelli Simpkins in About Face Theatre’s ‘The Gulf.’
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Lauren Emily Whalen
“Two lesbians go fishing…” It sounds like the setup for a potentially off-color joke, and The Gulf is, at times, very funny. But when a queer rural couple is moored together in the water after a motor malfunction, the potential for drama is strong. About Face Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Audrey Cefaly’s award-winning play takes an in-depth look at a shared life on the verge of falling apart in a way that’s both deeply personal and stunningly universal.
As the audience walks into the theatre, Kendra (Kelli Simpkins) and Betty (Deanna Myers) float somewhere on the Alabama Delta. Girlie country music (courtesy of Robert Hornbostel’s excellent sound design) provides the soundtrack for the couple’s nonverbal gestures that tell us everything about their life together.
As Kendra casts out her fishing pole, Betty reads What Color is Your Parachute?. Occasionally they touch, as Betty applies lip balm and offers it to Kendra, and the two smile fondly at one another. Other times, they seem determined to put as much distance as possible between one another. As the house lights go down and the play begins, their behaviors intensify in words.
Even in 2020, relationship stories about queer women are still few and far between. (In related news, The L Word: Generation Q, a reboot of the popular early-aughts series, was just renewed for a second season, and Cynthia Nixon will be directing the 1980 lesbian-themed play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove with celebrity producers Ellen DeGeneres and Lily Tomlin.) Even rarer are stories about the rural queer experience – the Broadway hit The Inheritance briefly touches on it, but only in childhood flashbacks. No one’s outed in The Gulf. No one dies. There’s a confrontation with an unseen man on another boat, but the result is only Kendra and Betty raising their middle fingers. In Cefaly’s script, the darkest arguments are between Kendra and Betty, and they run the gamut from future plans to enabling the local cat lady. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship, no matter the orientation, can relate.
About Face Artistic Director Megan Carney helms the production with a sure hand, emphasizing the ups and downs of Kendra and Betty’s intimacy. These are two people who know each other inside and out – or so they think before they step on the boat. As the play progresses, it’s clear how stuck Kendra and Betty really are. Though Carney’s pacing is slightly slow and the play could be more effective at a tight 90 minutes, playwright Cefaly’s voice is The Gulf’s saving grace. Joe Schermoly’s brilliant-as-usual set design — a rotating platform for the couple’s boat, surrounded by steel washtubs partially filled with water and fishing net suspended in the air — reminds the audience at every turn that we’re not in Chicago anymore.
Both Simpkins and Myers are perfectly cast, respectively embodying rough-around-the-edges Kendra and codependent dreamer Betty. One just wants to eat steak and women, the other desires a life outside their small town and has taken the first step to achieving her goal. The Gulf is a lesbian story — told onstage —which is significant in its own right.
At the same time, The Gulf is a story for everyone who finds themselves at odds with the person they are, the person they want to be, and the person with whom they are in a relationship. As Cefaly, Carney and cast illustrate to the fullest, the downfall of a couple isn’t always straight-up tragedy. More often than not, there are moments of pure comedy.
About Face Theatre at Theater Wit
1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago
Through February 15, 2020
Lauren Emily Whalen is a 2018 alumna of the National Critics Institute and author of the young adult novels SATELLITE and the forthcoming TWO WINTERS (2021). Follow her on Twitter at @laurenemilywri.