Human beings are mysterious creatures with interior lives full of secrets, complexities and warring impulses. The guests at Chevalier d’Eon in the summer of 1962 understand that only too well.
The rundown Catskills bungalow colony, named for a famous 18th century spy and cross-dresser, is a haven where real-world masculinity takes a holiday. Where wigs, makeup, dresses and not-so-high heels make a group of like-minded straight men more comfortable in their own skin — even if some of that skin sports a 5 o’clock shadow.
Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina had a relatively short run on Broadway in the spring of 2014, though it did get a best play Tony Award nomination. Inspired by the story of a real-life getaway called Casa Susanna, the play is stronger than its short New York life might suggest.
Or maybe it’s just that director Joseph Adler and the powerful cast of Casa Valentina at GableStage have found and illuminated all the sweet (and tender and tough) spots in Fierstein’s script.
The proprietors of the resort are George (Wayne LeGette), aka Valentina, and his wife Rita (Irene Adjan). On this particular summer weekend, they’re welcoming Bessie (Roland Rusinek), a plus-sized married man and father of grown children; Gloria (Cliff Burgess), a svelte younger “woman” with an air of mystery to her; Terry (Howard Elfman), who looks like a ‘50s grandma if that grandma were actually grandpa; Charlotte (Kevin Reilley), a California transvestite activist with some disturbing secrets; Amy (Peter Galman), who happens to be a judge; and Jonathon (Ryan Didato), a first-timer and young husband who’s summoning up the courage to present himself as Miranda.
The men’s reasons for dressing as women are as different as they are. They’re not drag queens, and they identify as straight — indeed, by today’s standards, a startling strain of homophobia runs through the play. They speak in their normal voices, but at Chevalier d’Eon, those voices come out of heavily rouged faces.
Four-time Tony winner Fierstein laces his script with some of the tart, fizzy lines he crafts so well. But the playwright is after something deeper in his look at this risk-taking, cross-dressing community. He examines the personal costs to these men drawn to dressing in lacy undies and petticoats: a secret life kept from or shared with wives, potential legal dangers, competing views on activism, the undercurrent of fear in the men’s lives.
The design work in the production — by Lyle Baskin (set), Jeff Quinn (lighting), Ellis Tillman (costumes) and Matt Corey (sound) — is inventive and spot-on, particularly Tillman’s period array of feminine made-for-men outfits and wigs. The acting and Adler’s astute, carefully nuanced direction make for a sublime theater experience.
Adjan and LeGette make for a powerful couple, she cheerfully accommodating, he the confident host/hostess with the most. Gradually, though, the playwright, actors and Adler reveal the cost of the couple’s ongoing bargain, and the play’s final image is a devastating one.
As the judge’s daughter, Patti Gardner has one small scene played with not-quite-controlled rage. Representing the voice of those who don’t understand, will never accept and believe themselves damaged by a loved one’s need, Gardner is stunningly powerful.
Props, too, to the rest of the “ladies” — Rusinek’s sassy Bessie, Galman’s conflicted Amy, Elfman’s cheery Terry, Reilley’s manipulative Charlotte, Burgess’ self-possessed Gloria, Didato’s jittery and abundantly sympathetic Miranda. Each of the nine actors and Adler make Casa Valentina a passport into a secret corner of life and history, one that’s all the more fascinating because of its real-life roots.
If you go
What: ‘Casa Valentina’ by Harvey Fierstein.
Where: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no evening show May 31), through June 28.
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.