Through Nov. 6
4200 Campbell Avenue, Shirlington
$40 and up
Local playwright Audrey Cefaly likes telling women’s stories, especially those involving women who aren’t typically seen onstage. With her new play “The Gulf,” now making its world premiere in a riveting production at Signature Theatre, Cefaly focuses on the rocky relationship of small-town girlfriends, Kendra (a sewage plant operator) and Betty (a bartender). While the 80-minute immersion into the mismatched pair’s world is certainly intense, it’s way funny too.
Ostensibly on the water for a day of leisurely fishing in the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico on the Alabama coast, Kendra (Rachel Zampelli) and Betty (Maria Rizzo) are in fact playing out what’s clearly now become habit. Kendra fishes while Betty, who’s eager to ditch slinging drinks to study social work at junior college in a different town, chatters on about self-improvement, pop psychology, weird happenings and local gossip. Today she’s brought along a copy of the bestselling vocational manual “What Color Is your Parachute?” to needle Kendra into joining her in making a move and a career change. Betty suggests prison guard for her girlfriend. Kendra is not bowled over.
Mostly tight-lipped and set-jawed, Kendra responds occasionally with wry asides and sarcastic observations. Initially playful, the back and forth grows increasingly irritated in rises and falls. The afternoon unfolds in this way with flashes of passion, some violence, laughs and interludes of heartfelt exchange. After six years of coupledom marred by distrust and infidelity, the couple is bonded by sentiment, inertia and personal histories of loss and sadness. But this day grows different when their little rowboat’s tiny outboard motor dies. Together they face the immensity of the Gulf and the gulf of their relationship.
Like specimens under a magnifying glass, Cefaly’s characters are caught in a tight space (the skeletal frame of a wooden dinghy that shifts on a slow-moving revolve), closely watched by an audience seated just feet away from the action. Expertly helmed by out director Joe Calarco, the cast and design team impeccably give life to Cefaly’s words. Paige Hathaway provides a curvilinear set of sea and sky. Andrew Cessna’s gorgeous lighting takes the action from lazy afternoon into chilly evening, and Kenny Neal adds the inimitable sound of cast lines and twangy blues.
Calarco has smartly cast two fully committed local actors to create the parts. Rizzo, a versatile actor best known locally for her work in Signature musicals — the legendary title stripper in “Gypsy” and Anybody’s, the girl who wants to rumble with the boys, in “West Side Story,” gives a luminous performance as Betty. And Zampelli surpasses expectation as Kendra, the least girlish of the pair and a little grizzled in her baggy old shorts and worn shrimp boots. Completely believable as a couple, Rizzo and Zampelli are comfortable with each other and their cramped surroundings. They spend most of the play confined to the boat.
Playwright Cefaly rather brilliantly combines exceedingly mundane talk with unexpected poetic passages. And while Cefaly isn’t gay, she certainly knows how to write lesbian relationships. With Betty and Kendra she introduces memorable characters, impossible not to care about both individually and as a couple.
And will their relationship endure? Who knows? Most likely Betty’s ceaseless yearning for something better will prompt her to seek out a future in other women’s eyes. And Kendra may at one point give grow weary of the drama. But for now, they’re together.