Dr. Ride's American Beach House and the Secret Lives of Lesbians in the 1980s
Sally Ride's historic space journey inspires four women on a St. Louis rooftop.
This is not a play about bold names in history books. In Dr. Ride's American Beach House, Liza Birkenmeier tells the story of four ordinary women drinking on the roof of a St. Louis apartment building on June 17, 1983. Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey) are the founders of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, a gathering that no longer discusses books and is mostly an excuse for Harriet and Matilda to spend time together. Meg (Marga Gomez) is a newcomer. Norma (Susan Blommaert) isn't a member, but she makes regular appearances to complain to Harriet about the water coming from her air conditioner.
None of them lead the kind of fabled lives that little girls dream about, but they are representative of how a lot of little girls end up. This quietly crushing world premiere from Ars Nova invites us into the secret lives of characters who are familiar, yet rarely appear onstage.
The title refers to Dr. Sally Ride, the astrophysicist who on June 18, 1983, became the first American woman in space (the Soviets sent Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman of any nationality, 20 years earlier). Radio news reports of Ride's preparations invade this rooftop party like space aliens bearing exposition and probing our characters to reveal their true thoughts. Rumors of Ride's sexuality swirled for years, and they make an appearance in this play. But Ride only publicly confirmed that she was a lesbian in her obituary by listing Tam O'Shaughnessy (a woman) as her surviving partner of 27 years. That means that their relationship began in 1985, when Ride was still married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley, and when, according to this play, she was still deeply attached to ex-girlfriend Molly Tyson.
Birkenmeier is clearly interested in lives that do not fit comfortably into rigid labels and legal frameworks. Matilda and Harriet entwine their limbs like teenagers in love, but Matilda also listens sympathetically as Harriet describes a sexual encounter with a hairy biker dude. It's not like Matilda has room to be jealous, considering she has a husband and daughter. A spinster who lives with her sister, Norma has dedicated her life to "safety" and "money," a mantra she repeats throughout the play. With her butch haircut, Meg is the most outwardly lesbian of the four and also the most confident, but even she seems to be combatting a terrible ennui.
All of them have something in their lives that is blocking the path forward, keeping them from the "pursuit of happiness" that is their birthright as Americans. Explaining the genesis of this book club that has long ceased discussing books, Matilda wryly remarks, "That was when we had aspirations." It is surely deliberate that this play takes place in St. Louis, gateway to the West and home of that other clan languishing in unfulfilled aspirations, the Wingfields. Does any city better encapsulate the promise of the frontier frustrated by a failure to launch?
Director Katie Brook makes the unaddressed tension in this play as thick as the air on a humid summer evening, and all of the characters respond to that climate in different ways. Matilda opts for humor (Markey gloriously conveys the dry wit of this script). Harriet radiates discomfort (Sieh often appears as though she would like to crawl out of her own skin). Since it is the '80s, these characters cannot take refuge from an awkward beat by glancing at their smartphones. No, they have to live right through it, and the resulting moments of human connection and disconnection are fascinating to witness.
The natural performances are facilitated by well-executed and realistic design: Scenic designer Kimie Nishikawa has created an evocative rooftop landscape, with air shafts appearing like deep craters on the moon. Melissa Ng's costumes suggest both period and personality, with Meg's black band T-shirt and silver chain being the most unapologetically different. Oona Curley creates a sunset that is both beautiful and menacing, since the passage of time means that this gathering will eventually have to come to an end. Ben Williams's radio sound design is like a fifth character, bringing telegrams from a country preoccupied by NASA and Doublemint gum.
It's easy to become bored or even drowsy in this unimposing, chatty play about women tiptoeing around the roof. But Dr. Ride's American Beach House rewards the patient viewer. Its hidden treasures reveal themselves only upon further reflection, and often days later. You may not feel like you're watching someone blast into orbit, but American Beach House depicts a giant leap for both woman and womankind.