The Beebo Brinker Chronicles unfolds in an era when the cultural norm for American women was more homemaker Betty Crocker than feminist Betty Friedan. Based on a collection of lesbian pulp fiction classics by Ann Bannon, the theatrical Beebo Brinker follows the journeys of several gals and their gay pal from the early 1950s to the dawn of the ‘60s.
The Kate Moira Ryan-Linda S. Chapman play, an Off-Broadway success in 2007, is the second show from Fort Lauderdale’s Kutumba Theatre Project, an LGBT-friendly company run by Kim Ehly. The script isn’t as strong as Ehly’s own Baby GirL, Kutumba’s memorable debut production. Yet in new digs at the Galleria Mall’s Galleria Studio Theatre (home of the Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre), director Ehly and a strong cast mine Beebo Brinker for not only its noir-style humor but for the sobering, resonant truths about the characters’ search for happiness in a judgmental world.
As Beebo begins, sorority sisters Laura (Blaze Powers) and Beth (Sandi M. Stock) have reached a fork in the relationship road. Gorgeous Laura wants to take their secret love to the next level by setting up house with Beth in Greenwich Village. But Beth lacks Laura’s courage, instead opting to marry Charlie (Rayner G. Garranchan), her unsuspecting boyfriend. Major mistake.
Their divergent paths lead both women to plenty of heartache. Laura, who often prowls the village with her gay friend Jack (Matt Stabile), can’t forget Beth but tries to move on. She falls for her chatty straight roommate Marcie (Christina Groom), a predictably disastrous chapter in her life, then surrenders to the tough, confident Beebo Brinker (Niki Fridh), a butch lesbian experienced in navigating the choppy waters of an alternative lifestyle.
The ever-more-miserable Beth, who lives in California with Charlie and their two young kids, escapes the daily rebuke that is her life by losing herself in Beebo Brinker-style lesbian pulp fiction. In one of the play’s more clever scenes, Beth breathlessly reads an erotic passage aloud as, on the other side of the stage (and the other side of the country), Beebo and Laura take a hot tumble between the sheets.
Told in cinematically short scenes, the play powers through its weak spots thanks to Kutumba’s engaging cast. Powers makes the beautiful Laura a kind of everywoman’s fantasy, a dream dame who moves from loss, longing and a kind of naiveté to a sophisticated life of consensual adventure. As Beth, Stock isn’t nearly as compelling, though her scenes with Garranchan as Beth’s marriage implodes are effectively intense. Garranchan is playing a cliché of a man, a traditional hubby who can’t fathom why his sexually disinterested wife just can’t clean more and do a better job of bonding with their kids. Yet the actor finds dramatic depth in Charlie’s endless frustration, enriching each of his scenes.
Fridh’s Beebo is both commanding and alluring, a tough gal who is as needy and vulnerable as anyone, despite her contention that nothing in the game of love (or sex) really matters. Stabile (Fridh’s real-life hubby) is charming and funny as Jack, Laura’s pragmatic pal, and Groom gets to flaunt her versatility by playing roommate Marcie, slutty Lili and novelist Nina.
The show’s production values are a mixed bag. Tyler K. Smith’s minimalist gray set design allows for multiple playing areas but doesn’t anchor the piece, and Sean Cutler’s too-stark lighting doesn’t always fit with the mood of a scene. Yet the costumes by Ehly and Melanie Garbo supply plenty of color and period-evocative style, and the sound design by Nicole Stodard and David Hart -- particularly the scene-bridging songs of the era --reinforces the play’s themes.
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles is drawing plenty of South Florida’s lesbian theatergoers, a community Ehly wants to serve with Kutumba. The play evokes a specific world quite well, but its themes -- the search for love, youthful mistakes, bruising cruelty and the possibility of reinvention -- resonate with anyone negotiating that path to maturity called life.