“We are here to be fully ourselves. Can you imagine a world like that?”
In the San Francisco Playhouse production of “The Daughters,” playwright Patricia Cotter imagines two such worlds. One during the opening meeting of the lesbian social club Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 — and the other 60 years later on the closing night of the last lesbian bar in San Francisco.
Staged at the Creativity Theater as a part of the San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series, the play operates as a two-in-one, with an intermission separating the two acts. In the first act, a large crimson curtain filled with empty frames falls behind the set — composed of cozy 1960s furniture, wooden bookshelves and tables. In this living room, women express anxieties about raids, discuss the safety precautions they are forced to take and lament over the lack of community. In the second act, the curtain serves as the backdrop for the closing of the Lexington Club in 2015, the last lesbian bar in San Francisco. At the bar, attention turns to the evolution away from lesbian bar scenes and the inclusion, or exclusion, of transgender people into the community.
Each actor is given the opportunity to play two different characters respective to the first and second act. With this, there was no weak link. Jeunée Simon shines as both the pragmatic bicoastal writer Vivian, and the high-femme Leslie. Olivia Levine worked double time as two younger women — the rosy cheeked Evelyn and radical queer college grad Ani. Even Martha Graham, a last minute add-in after a seventh hour injury of the previous actor, with script in hand, was integrated seamlessly into the production as Mal and Gina.
Yet among all of these stellar performances, Molly Shaiken’s performance as Jefferson and Griff stood out as one of the most poignant. In the final scene of act one, as the women all prepare to leave the safety of the Daughters of Bilitis meeting, Griff comes into the room, dressed in a skirt and blouse, with a sweater draped over their shoulders — a stark contrast from the suit, tie and fedora they entered the show with. Stripped of all the braggadocio from moments before, the character comes sharply into focus as just as scared as the rest of the women.
Through the characters of Shorty, Griff and Jefferson, the play also zeros in on the exclusionary transphobia that persists in some areas of the lesbian movement. Graham as Gina, and to some extent her portrayal of Mal, served as the mouthpiece for some of these exclusionary ideals — gatekeeping and yelling about how there were no “real” lesbians anymore. In this play all about the evolution of a community, Gina provides the perfect argument for why, if the community doesn’t continue to evolve, it will die.
Although as a complete piece the production was a success, where the first act offered a depiction of community both humorous and tender, the second act failed to measure up and felt far more one-note. In act two, the characters felt far less connected, with emphasis on too many secondary storylines to focus into just one hour. While the character of Mal in the first half felt thoughtful and conflicted, her counterpart Gina was bigoted and ignorant.
Still, a soft sympathy was extended toward Gina. Meanwhile, Jefferson, a transgender character, was primarily relegated to the role of educator — explaining to Gina his validity within the community. And where in act one the crimson curtain nicely complimented the cozy living room scene, in the second act, it fell in direct contrast to the grimy dive bar depicted with the rest of the set pieces.
Despite the missteps, “The Daughters” serves as a powerful reminder of the strength and importance of community, with special attention to the characters as both pieces of a bigger picture and complex individuals in their own right.