BWW Reviews: A LESBIAN BELLE TELLS! tales at Capital Fringe
Don't let the title fool you. The fact that Elizabeth McCain is a lesbian is a subplot; the main stories here are about being raised in the deep South, the importance of family, fitting in and finding self. As one of her aunts eventually said about McCain's wife, Marie: thank goodness she was southern, and not a "Yankee," which would have been worse. McCain is a trained, practicing counselor and she brings an innate understanding of others to the personal tales that make up her 90-minute solo show (directed by Tanya Taylor Rubinstein); an understanding that raises the will-the-audience-relate level. In other words, you don't have to be a lesbian to find your own life in her experiences; you need only have had challenging family relationships, experienced loss and death, tried to find someone to date, or just be human.
We heard early in the show about the sacred Southern tradition of "porch time" visiting, which involved drinking, sharing and laughing on one's porch with friends and family. In fact, the feeling I walked away with could best be summed up by the name of the family summer home in the Smoky Mountains: Southern Comfort. I got much more from the very personal tale of being raised in the Southern culture, with its high expectations, required conformity and focus on status indicators, wrapped in a cloak of warm hospitality, close family ties, rich history and good food.
I'm not sure the stories she told lived up to the billing of "OUTrageous porch stories;" they were more in the nature of poignant, charming, emotional memories being shared with a group of strangers. We did meet a memorable group of real-life characters: in particular McCain's traditional, conservative parents who, not-surprisingly, don't react well to the revelation that their southern belle of a daughter would not be following the prescribed path to marriage, children and fine Mississippi womanhood; her loving, funny aunts and, my favorite, her mother's best friend and sorority sister, Charlotte, who steps in as surrogate mother after the passing of McCain's mother when McCain is in her thirties.
The show was most successful when McCain shifted character to one of these influential people; changing voice, mannerisms and carriage so that we could "meet" them on their turf...a plantation porch, at a family funeral, at one of her potluck attempts at meeting other lesbians, on a lesbian cruise. Otherwise, the energy level seemed too subdued, with an awkward stiffness, or perhaps over-rehearsed manner that didn't really mesh with the (I think) intended feeling that you were friends rocking together on a porch sipping mint juleps and telling bawdy stories. Whether it was the direction, or merely actor inexperience, at times I felt as if I was at a lecture or meeting, rather than a work of theater. It was enjoyable, but I didn't feel transported, as I do when theatrical storytelling is at its best.
The real achievement to this monologue was that McCain may have been telling us about her experiences of discovering her bisexual/lesbian orientation in DC in the 90s, the travails of meeting potential romantic partners, the deep hurt caused by her family's rejection, and the difficulty of balancing her extremely conflicted love/hate relationship with her Southern roots; but you could substitute another characteristic that makes one feel different and alienated, or the universal trials of the dating scene and the entertainment value would have remained. But there are too few times when these universal experiences are told from other than the perspective of the majority. So if you've been connected to the gay and lesbian community and culture, especially in DC over the past twenty years, you'll get a kick out her references to local bars, neighborhoods and stereotypes.
Telling personal stories is a most ancient historical and theatrical tradition, and I am thankful that someone like Elizabeth McCain is willing to bare her soul to audiences so that others may find some part of their history and self along with her. It doesn't hurt that when you leave the show, this "Lesbian Belle" might have you a little more apt to laugh at yourself, and more able to silence that judgmental inner voice we all have.
There are three performances of A Lesbian Belle Tells! remaining; all at the Goethe Institute on 7th St. NW, just a short walk from the Gallery Place Metro Station. Go to https://www.capitalfringe.org/festival-2014/shows/330-a-lesbian-belle-tells for more information and tickets.