Honor Thy Mothers in The Daughters

Patricia Cotter’s lesbian history play is also a contemporary comedy — through Nov. 2 at The Creativity Theater at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Patricia Cotter’s dramedy The Daughters includes a first act that’s set in the 1950s and a contemporary second act — but no bridge that connects the two together. 

Each act of the play — featured in our Fall Arts Preview — is a self-contained story about an extended circle of lesbians. The characters don’t move forward in time, although some of their intimacy issues do. In the 60 years that pass between the acts, problems relating to love and identity evolve on the stage to mirror real life. The first meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) presents us with an opportunity to get to know Mal (Martha Brigham), her partner Peggy (Erin Anderson) and their guests. And just as the characters begin to come alive, as they reveal their needs and desires to each other, the intermission cuts them off and leaves them sepia-toned in a time bound amber room.

That you want to know more about them speaks to Cotter’s skill at fleshing them out in the first place. The playwright based Mal and Peggy on Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin (d. 2008), the first same-sex couple to marry in San Francisco in 2004, and again in 2008 after the Supreme Court weighed in definitively on the matter. They were also the founders of the DOB, considered a foundational organization for lesbians in the United States. Cotter also met with and interviewed Phyllis Lyon in person. Mal is her proxy. She has the most distinctive personality and the most to say.

Mal also embodies the first act’s main artistic conflict between giving the audience a history lesson and telling a lived-in story. Her agenda for the meeting is dry. She wants to establish a set of rules for the group that’s accompanied by a written bill of rights to give them some structure and sense of purpose. When Mal starts to read it out loud, she’s met with sarcasm and resistance. The women who have found their way to Mal and Peggy’s San Francisco flat are in search of a safe place to be with other women. Already in a committed relationship with Peggy, Mal isn’t as isolated or as hungry for companionship and sex as Evelyn (Olivia Levine), Vivian (Jeunée Simon), Griff (Molly Shaiken) and Shorty (Em Lee Reaves) are. They want to drink and dance and enjoy themselves without the threat of being arrested. 

Just as Mal has put in a great deal of research and energy into creating the bylaws, so has Cotter. She wants to pay homage to the founders of the DOB and to let us know that it’s a significant moment in LGBT history. It doesn’t feel as significant as it should because the play doesn’t show what the DOB’s long-term impact was. Whether it evolved or devolved and how the moment played out in the lives of the characters. The jump in Act II moves from the private space of their apartment to the closing of a public space, the Lexington, the last lesbian bar in San Francisco. So the history lesson gives way to a mostly comic romp and a party scene.   
Mal’s list of rules were intended as a battle plan, a means to an end to gain acceptance and assimilation for lesbians. But one of her rules was problematic for the butch women who preferred to dress in men’s clothing. Cotter finds a 21st century equivalent for a similar cultural and generational rift that exists within the community. The Lexington is closing at the same time that gender fluidity is becoming the dominant and preferred brand of stating a sexual identity. Some of the older women in the bar lament the fact that millennials no longer wish to be codified or limited by the dated term “lesbian.” 

When Gina’s (Martha Brigham) ex-girlfriend reunites with her in the bar, she’s shaken up. Her ex-girlfriend is now a trans man named Jefferson (Molly Shaiken). Shaiken played the butch Griff in Act I. It’s Jefferson’s brief storyline that felt like the clearest throughline between the acts. When Griff left Mal and Peggy’s place, the character had to change outfits, from a pair of pants into a skirt. Griff’s posture communicated how ill-suited a 1950s feminine identity was for that particular persona and body. Intriguing moments like Gina and Jefferson’s exchange, or Mal’s with Vivian, the only lesbian of color in the company, are dramatized with great nuance. 

But how, exactly, did these women get from the cloistered world of 1955 to the openness of 2015? The Daughters holds that information too close to the vest. 

The Daughters, through Nov. 2, an S.F. Playhouse production at The Creativity Theater at Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 4th Street. $30-$40; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph

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