Opening tonight for a two-week run at Jobsite Theater, Dr. Ride’s American Beach House is an extraordinarily intimate play about the choices we make, the friends we hold close and the desires we choose to share and not share. There are undercurrents running beneath its surface like humming electric wires.
Harriet (Leah LoSchiavo) and Matilda (Emily Belvo) are sipping cold bottles of beer on a St. Louis rooftop. It’s 1983, and the night before the early-morning liftoff of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the historic flight that will take astronaut Sally Ride into space, across the country in Florida.
The two friends do this all the time, even when there’s no space launch in the offing. Ostensibly, they’re members of a regularly-meeting book club, but it’s really just an excuse to drink and shoot the breeze.
These breezes blow in all directions. Harriet has a boyfriend, Luke, with whom she’s unsatisfied. In fact, nothing about Harriet’s life is working for her, and like the famous Dr. Ride, she looks longingly at the road in front of her. “Going away,” she calls it, wistfully.
The chatty and slightly daffy Matilda is married, with children – she is the Yin to her longtime friend’s Yang. The pair banter back and forth with a sweet familiarity, often finishing each other’ sentences.
Are they – even unknown to themselves – in love? This becomes a point of focus when Meg (Susan Haldeman) arrives on the roof. She is an acquaintance, and she’s openly gay, and she possesses a deep, intrinsic understanding of the ways of the same-sex heart.
Meg also knows more about Dr. Sally Ride – Harriet’s hero – than her new friends.
The Catalyst spoke with playwright Liza Birkenmeier, who attended this week’s preview performances.
Tell me, in your words, who these characters are and what’s driving them.
Liza Birkenmeier: We’re meeting them at the moment where they may be driven by different things for the first time. Matilda, who I think is effortlessly a good time, has been able to have what she wants and the excitement that she wants, a lot of the time. And I think that Harriet has lived in … I guess the tired way to say it is, her shadow. Harriet has had a sort of quiet longing that is not being satiated. She really loves Matilda, and is never going to get the affection and attention that she needs from her.
You’ve described them as “queer anti-heroines.” To me, it was very much a subtext of the story. Did I miss something?
You’re not wrong, and I don’t think you missed anything. I don’t think I would actually describe it as subtext, so much as so limited by language. It’s not that they are so repressed that they don’t ever know how to talk about their relationship, or talk about their queerness. I think that in their time and place there just literally isn’t the language. I do think it’s an active-participant kind of experience, where you have to make the meaning out of what they’re not necessarily repressing, but make meaning out of what is literally inexpressible to them.
Into the mix comes Meg, who acts as sort of a fulcrum for them.
She’s so pivotal. Before they meet Meg, they’ve probably neither one of them had a conversation with an out lesbian. And I think Meg puts sexuality to them front and center. Even though we’ve already heard this very sexual story about this man in the beginning of the play, Meg actually puts sexuality in the air for them. Without it, they could go living to a certain extent the way they do – but suddenly there’s a person who is expressing herself, even talking about things like pleasure. And having experiences that she’s outwardly not ashamed of. She’s able to express desire.
This is the second-ever production of Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, and the first one outside of New York. What did you think of it?
I was truly stunned at how much I loved watching it. I thought the cast did a beautiful job. I was surprised in the ways that their interpretation felt so similar to the New York production. And things that were different felt so refreshing and imaginative and exciting to see, discoveries that they made. The piece really also felt like theirs.
Tickets and additional information here.