Before seeing Desert Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, I was not really aware of the lesbian pulp-fiction literary genre. During the 1950s and ’60s, there were apparently two categories of these books: those written by straight men to titillate other straight men, and those written by women for frustrated housewives who dared not admit they were gay.
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, written by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman, is based on the works of prolific author Ann Bannon (a pseudonym for Ann Weldy), who became known as “the queen of lesbian pulp fiction.” Bannon was in the DET audience opening night and provided some fascinating pre-show commentary.
The play tells the story of Laura (Lizzie Schmelling) and Beth (Phylicia Mason), college lovers who go their separate ways when Beth marries and settles down with Charlie (Miguel Arballo). Laura heads to New York, and is soon sharing an apartment with Marcie (Tessa Gregory-Walker) and hanging out with gay bon vivant Jack (Brent Anderson). Still heartbroken over the breakup with Beth, Laura briefly sets her sights on Marcie, but then begins a passionate affair with the butch Beebo (Alexana Thomas). The two soon move in together.
Meanwhile, Beth is growing tired of domestic life with Charlie and their two young sons. Realizing that she really is a lesbian, Beth abandons her family and heads to New York, hoping for a reconciliation with Laura. It does not go as she had hoped.
There are many dramatic twists and turns, some laughs and a few very steamy lesbian love scenes. Director Judith Chapman does a fine job of guiding her actors through some pretty intense stuff. The love scenes in particular are handled well. Those moments are quite erotic, without being gratuitous.
Chapman is blessed with strong cast members who mesh well together. Lizzie Schmelling and Phylicia Mason are particularly effective as Laura and Beth, respectively. Their love story comes across as quite believable. Mason ably portrays Beth’s confusion about her sexual identity, and her regret over ending the relationship with Laura. Schmelling makes Laura’s pain and desperate search for love palpable. These are two young actresses to watch.
Alexana Thomas is fabulous as the swaggering, predatory Beebo. No woman she lays eyes on is safe from her advances. When she explodes into a jealous rage, it’s jarring—yet authentic. As the aging, acerbic Jack, Brent Anderson is perfect. He provides much of the play’s comic relief. Miguel Arballo evokes much sympathy as Beth’s long-suffering husband, Charlie.
Tessa Gregory-Walker does a nice job in multiple roles: as Laura’s roommate, Marcie; the boozy, gossiping party guest Lili; and later, dressed in a snazzy black pantsuit and fedora, writer Nina Spicer.
Thomas Valach’s bare-bones set and Gus Sanchez’s moody music set just the right tone for the play. While the lighting created the right ambiance in general, there were moments when some of the actors seemed to be in shadows a bit too much. This is Desert Ensemble Theatre’s first play in the company’s new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, and that’s likely one of the improvements to the space producers are planning in the near future. All in all, the Cultural Center is a wonderful new home for the company.
The Beebo Brinker Chronicles takes us back to the days when same-sex love was against the law. It reminds us once again that lust, betrayal, jealousy and heartbreak are the same no matter who you love. Deep down, our similarities are far greater than our differences. It’s a message worth remembering—and this is a show worth seeing.
Desert Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 19, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required for entry. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.desertensembletheatre.org.