Pretty sure the last time we saw a play about lesbians in this town was 2018 when the Alley staged Bekah Brunstetter’s, The Cake, about a North Carolina baker who faces a crisis of conscience when asked to make a cake for a lesbian wedding.
A year before that we had the spectacular Fun Home, Lisa Kron’s award-winning musical about a young lesbian girl coming of age, coming out, and coming to terms with some difficult family secrets.
Since then, it’s been crickets. Looking back, it’s also fair to say there’s been a narrative black hole of sorts when it comes to lesbian stories on our stages.
The hot take would be that Houston artistic directors are unfairly ignoring these narratives and playwrights. Probably closer to the truth is that theatrical stories concerning lesbian issues just aren’t as prevalent as their gay male counterparts.
Why or how this is the case is another topic altogether, one that concerns who is allowed access, how development funds are spent, and other hurdles that marginalized writers must jump when trying to get plays produced.
This is why it’s both exciting and wonderfully gap-filling to see that Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. is using its Unleashed program of workshopping/staging new plays to produce Gwen Flager’s unabashedly lesbian tale, Shakin’ The Blue Flamingo.
Unlike the issue-based or angst-ridden shows mentioned above, Flager’s play (the title of which is a euphemism for heavy petting by same-sex couples) takes eight middle-aged women, well-adjusted to their sexual preference, and tosses them into a familiar romantic dramedy of girl loses girl and girl tries to get girl back.
No need to hammer out the notion that women who love women are just like us. Flager attempts to let the group’s machinations, admirable or otherwise, play out naturally. Even when it doesn’t quite work, we’re thankful for her easy touch.
Not that everything Flager is laying down is easy to pick up in this production. Like many new works, this one piles on a lot of plot in some cases and not enough character development in others, trying our patience at times and lessening the overall sweetness of the central love story.
We meet the women (former sorority sisters) as they gather at a diner to discuss organizing an LBGTQ prom for local kids. Why is the prom necessary? Is the high school not accepting of same-sex relationships? What year is this? All unanswered questions that irk but ultimately don’t matter all that much. Flager simply uses the prom as an excuse to get her ladies all in a room together.
There’s the ethereal sundress-wearing therapist Anne (Katherine Rinandi), the organizer of the group. Her long-time horse farmer girlfriend Taylor (Christina Taylor Wood). Snooty self-made businesswoman Wendye (Melissa J. Marek) and her improbable girlfriend, the dowdy and utterly smitten Billie (Meredith Anne Gaines). Graphic Designer Cory (Adina Owen giving the standout performance) is the dry and sassy one. Edna (Leona Hoegsberg) owns the shabby diner (that Scenic Designer Mark A. Lewis has confoundingly outfitted with a checkerboard floor so covered in dirt that it looks more like Taylor’s barn than a place anyone would choose to eat in).
Then there’s butch Mac (Malinda L. Beckham), one half of the play’s romantic heart. The recent loss of her partner haunts her still, but it isn’t the only thing pulling at her emotions. For that, we need to go back to her sorority days and the one piece of social commentary Flager allows her script.
We learn that Mac had a secret flirtatious but unconsummated affair with her wealthy and glamorous sorority sister, Rosemary (Alex Vaughn). Secret because none of the women were openly gay at that time. It was simply not approved of. So much so, that when rumors of Mac and Rosemary’s affections got out, Mac was asked to leave campus to finish her studies remotely and Rosemary was whisked away by her family, eventually married a man, and was never seen again.
After all, what decent romance doesn’t have an ‘until’ in its trajectory?
Mac still longs for Rosemary, but fear of heartbreak holds her back. Rosemary similarly has held a torch for Mac all these years as well. There’s not much question of will they or won’t they, but rather how will they and what bumps are on the way.
It’s the bumps that trip up what would otherwise have been a satisfying if not terribly original (save for the lesbian characters) light romantic tale.
There’s a break-up scene so cruel and painful to watch we wonder what it’s doing in this show. Flager seems to be trying to point out that lesbians can be not just horrible people, but horrible to other women as well. It’s a community of all kinds of personalities.
True as this may be, Flager doesn’t follow it up with any consequences or reaction nor does Director Bonnie Hewett do anything to help us buy into the development. A horrible thing happens and no one flinches. This from a group of women connected by having each other’s backs.
As taxing are the many unnecessary scene zigs and zags that populate the second act. Side plots and unnecessary/drawn-out conversations that cover already mined ground bloat the play and lessen the excitement of what we know is ultimately coming.
And yet, once those final scenes between Mac and Rosemary do finally arrive, it’s impossible not to feel our hearts squeeze with hope and warmth. Flager may need to clear the weeds away on this script, but there’s a lovely rose growing in the middle of this presently messy garden of a play.
Shakin’ The Blue Flamingo continues through June 11 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit matchhouston.org. $25.