The two ladies hanging out on the roof are lesbians; they just don’t know it yet.
The title of Liza Birkenmeier’s play, which marks her Off-Broadway playwriting debut, may seem to promise something rollicking, but what unfolds is actually small, slow and seemingly random, existing almost entirely as subtext. “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” is largely about repressed desire.
It’s the night before Dr. Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space, in June 1983, and Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey), who have been friends since high school, are taking a break from their waitressing jobs, hanging out on Harriet’s roof in St. Louis, Missouri, listening to the radio, eying their neighbors through a pair of binoculars, sneaking a smoke, drinking beer, chatting. Matilda is a wife and mother, Harriet has an on-and-off boyfriend, but there are clues from the get-go of what, in a different time and place, their relationship might have been. Matilda frequently breaks into song (mostly love songs.) The two joke that they’re attending the latest meeting of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club (Two Serious Ladies is a landmark 1943 novel written by Jane Bowles about a lesbian relationship.)
It’s only about halfway through the play, though, that anything explicitly lesbian makes an appearance. That would be Meg (Marga Gomez) whom Matilda has invited to join them. She is a nurse who works in the hospital across the street.
She is also a butch lesbian, obvious from her manner and the severe Marine haircut that Gomez has gotten for the role…and from her conversation. Harriet asks her if she has a husband. “Of course not,” Meg says, prompting an uneasy silence. Then later, when talk turns to Sally Ride, and Matilda imagines what she’s doing with her husband right now, Meg says:
“She’s a lesbian.”
“She’s not a lesbian,” Harriet says.
“Yes she is.”
“….She’s married to Stephen Hawley.”
“…I’m certain she is….”
We too are certain, thanks to a note in the program by Ars Nova’s artistic directorJason Eagan, who informs us that Ride came out posthumously in her obituary. (“Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.”)
There is little else we learn about Sally Ride in the play, although we are offered a glimpse into the context of the era, when we hear the news account broadcast over the radio of her mission aboard the space shuttle, including an experiment to study the effects of zero gravity on an ant colony the astronauts have brought along: “Miss Ride won’t be the only lady making news aboard the Challenger. She’ll have to make room for Norma, the ant colony queen.”
Meg’s presence subtly shifts the dynamics on the roof, with a payoff at the end that might not be enough for many theatergoers. It’s certainly a challenge to present emotionally anesthetized characters. Both Harriet and Matilda went to graduate school for poetry, and they seem to chafe at the prosaic life they’re living now. Yet they are also witty and playful with each other. There are many moments where we feel encouraged to bask in their friendship; both the acting and the writing of “Dr. Ride” create women we enjoy getting to know. This is true even of the fourth character, Norma (Susan Blommaert), who runs the house where Harriet lives. Her neurotic antics function as a kind of comic relief, but there is pathos (again subtle) in the portrayal. (It’s jarring that Marga Gomez, who is a spectacular comic performer in her own work, is here toned down low, a misstep in what is otherwise fine direction by Katie Brook).
Kristen Sieh is riveting when telling the series of long stories of Harriet’s visit to Florida, where she saw her mother at the hospice where she’s dying, and met a man who was attending to his dying father. They went on a wild ride on his motorcycle and then had a one-night stand back at his home. The man, Harriet tells us , is the one who pointed out NASA’s official beach house, where the astronauts, such as Dr. Sally Ride, customarily stay on the night before their launch into space.
It’s worth noting that three of the four cast members are themselves also playwrights, which feels like an unusual show of welcome for a colleague at the launching of her Off-Broadway career.
Dr. Ride’s American Beach House
Ars Nova at Greenwich House
Written by Liza Birkenmeier
Directed by Katie Brook
Kimie Nishikawa (Scenic Design), Melissa Ng (Costume Design), Oona Curley (Lighting Design), Ben Williams (Sound Design)
Cast: Susan Blommaert, Marga Gomez, Erin Markey, and Kristen Sieh.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $35 – $65
Dr Ride’s American Beach House is on stage through November 23, 2019