Playwright Liza Birkenmeier’s new play Dr. Ride’s American Beach House delivers a sly unfolding of queer desire played out through repressed women in the 1980s in St. Louis. While Dr. Sally Ride, her lesbian identity (she only came out through her obituary in 2012), and her mission to space are critical background to this play, it’s the very earthly orbits of relationships that are at its center: the power of people that keep us still and those that launch us into movement.
Two high school best friends, Matilda (Erin Markey) and Harriet (Kristen Sieh) have been meeting on a rooftop for Two Serious Ladies book club for a while. They don’t read any books and the primary rule is “Never talk about men on the roof.” While both have men in their lives (Matilda has a husband and child and Harriet a boyfriend who kind of makes her sick), this is their time together.
On the roof, they wrap themselves around each other, tease, nag, and argue about the choices they’ve made. Both have graduate degrees they aren’t using as they wait tables. They are smart women who are trapped for reasons. Life is like that sometimes. There is a lot of disappointment between them but only some of it is overtly expressed.
Tonight they are listening to the radio in anticipation of the broadcast of Sally Ride’s journey into space taking place the next day. Matilda invites Meg (Marga Gomez), an out lesbian who works across the street, to join them and suddenly the balance of their two-some is thrown off. First, Meg’s open, honest self is rattling enough for these two friends whose feelings for each other has not been expressed (as far as we know). Second, Matilda, who is the performer and extrovert, gets less of Meg’s attention than she expected. Meg is much more intrigued by Harriet who suddenly is embracing a hitherto unknown power of her own.
Birkenmeier’s play unfolds slowly allowing these characters to reveal themselves and what they keep hidden at the same time. But with all this indirectness there were points where I started to lose interest too. It can be extremely subtle with a slow burning naturalism. I was enjoying the characters and spending time with these women but I grew impatient.
As my mind wandered, I wondered if a lesser cast could have been as clear with all that is expressed in the spaces in between what is said. That is the lion’s share of the play. But thankfully this is a top-notch cast. The nuanced performances from Erin Markey and Kristen Sieh communicate so much in gesture and ellipsis.
Director Katie Brook guides us through touches: a head to a chest, a leg twisted around another’s, a hand grabbing a fistful of the other’s clothes. Matilda and Harriet’s pent up desire spills out wherever there is a socially acceptable outlet for it—spying on neighbors with binoculars, a story of sexploits with a stranger, even spoonfuls of ice cream melting in summer heat have a certain frisson.
And when the two become three, the tension is ratcheted up with shifting power battles of attention and control. There are the games we play to keep that interest.
Markey, best known for her cabaret and performance work, gets to be both big and musical while operating on a quieter frequency we don’t get to see as often. She gets under the skin of Matilda here, drunkenly drinking in her friend and unable to pull herself out of the well-worn dynamic they have. She is the bold one until she is the coward and Markey crosses that threshold ever so carefully.
Sieh’s Harriet is dealing with a terminally ill parent and her character builds a bit more dramatically. Her explosion comes from within. Sieh bubbles first slowly and then to a full rolling boil.
A pestering neighbor (Susan Blommaert) brings a chaotic energy into the mix but I wasn’t always sure of the point of her character exactly. She does ever so briefly illustrate how the perception of one’s self can change with a kind word from someone really seeing you.
As the show reaches maximum emotional peak, Birkenmeier suddenly pulls back and uses a frustrating proxy for Matilda and Harriet with Sally Ride and her former girlfriend Molly Tyson in an imagined meeting at the NASA Beach House at Cape Canaveral. While symbolic, it’s less satisfying after investing so much in the friends. When the scene ends, it was not totally clear to me which world we are in (Florida or St. Louis). The blurring can be intentional but
Queer women get so little space on stage and a story that even meanders a bit is a welcome change. Birkenmeier has an ear for delightfully precise character work (“You remind me of my uncle that I hate.”) and these actors fulfill that promise.