Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
You walk into the theatre and the first thing you see is veteran actress Kelli Simpkins standing on an old, worn-out motor boat repeatedly casting a fishing rod while Deanna Myers lies in the back of the boat reading What Color Is Your Parachute? Scenic designer Joe Schermoly has surrounded the dilapidated boat with buckets of water, obviously there to let the actors create the illusion of actually floating somewhere and to tell us that, though they are not in the open sea, they might as well be. For however long it takes until the play begins, Simpkins casts and Myers reads, each of them in her own private world. Together but separate. This is how their characters, Kendra and Betty, find themselves in Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf: two lovers adrift in their lives, wanting more solidity from their long-term relationship but not sure that their partner wants the same thing.
The broken-down boat, a symbol of stagnation, clashes with the self-help career choice book in a quiet, subtle manner, much the same as the passive-aggressive way in which Betty endlessly suggests possible new careers for Kendra, who she feels is wasting her life in a meaningless job. Betty sees her own work as a bartender as a kind of stepping stone into social work, and she is about to go to a community college to get a degree, her first real step toward a more fulfilling life. Kendra, though, has no similar ambitions: she is content to float through life doing only enough to afford her the time to fish here in the Alabama coastal shallows. Their very different notions of happiness create a simmering conflict that neither one is willing to articulate.
It takes only minutes for the two seasoned actors to establish these characters who are unlike each other and unlike anyone we are used to seeing on the stage. Betty, the talkative half of this pair, moves from subject to subject with ease, filling the empty space with conversation that Myers peppers with almost childlike sing-songy elecution and upwards-inflected sentence endings that suggest someone not entirely sure of herself. Meanwhile, Kendra’s contributions are often terse and uninflected as Simpkins creates her more contemplative character. Neither woman is content with her life, but only Betty seems to be trying to do something about it, and she wants to bring her partner along with her. When a broken motor strands the two on the water overnight, they find themselves facing some difficult truths involving their relationship, their motivations, and their fidelity to each other.
Two-person plays can be inherently a bit claustrophobic, as they generally take place in a limited location where the characters cannot escape each other’s company for any length of time. The Gulf’s claustrophobia is somewhat ironic: though they literally have an entire sea surrounding them, the women are confined to the tiny space of their stalled boat. Director Megan Carney makes the most of this limitation, using the small space both to bring them together and to pull them apart. Much of the time, Betty and Kendra confine themselves to their own ends of the boat, accentuating their separateness even though they are physically with each other at all times. Most of us who have been in relationships can relate to this. We’ve all been one or the other (or both) of these characters from time to time.
Relationships are tricky to build and trickier to maintain; it’s easy to wake up one day and discover that you’ve drifted apart far more than you ever realized. It‘s clear that both women would like their relationship to continue, as we see in Betty’s desperate attempts to find a career Kendra might enjoy and Kendra’s seeming unwillingness to engage her partner in a serious conversation that might lead to confrontation. There is even a dreamy Titanic-like moment that finds the two of them entwined with each other at the bow of the small boat, locked in a loving dance under lighting designer Rachel Levy’s starlight. But the moment passes, and despite the revelations they both find in the play, which at one point leaves them nearly dashed to pieces on waves of anger, their relationship drifts on without any sign of resolution as so many do in real life.
The Gulf is as much about the gulf between these two lovers as it is about the Gulf of Mexico in which they float without the power to move on. These are two women stuck in a Waiting For Godot-like inertial state both literally and figuratively, and Cefaly seems to be suggesting that, since (like many of us) they lack the strength to act, they will simply remain in this limbo forever.
The Gulf is an About Face Theatre production now playing at the Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago, IL, until Feb 15. The show runs approximately 85 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.