Stage Review: Casa Valentina

Life Is Never Simple

by Bobby Franklin

Thomas Derrah and Kerry A. Dowling Photo Credit: Glenn Perry
Thomas Derrah and Kerry A. Dowling
Photo Credit: Glenn Perry

In the early 1960s small groups of heterosexual men would spend weekends at a bungalow camp in the Catskills called Casa Susanna. While there they would dress and act as women. They were not there to have sex parties, but rather to explore and experience their feminine inner selves and to be in an atmosphere where they felt safe and relaxed. A few years ago a collection of photographs from this retreat were discovered at a flea market and later published in a book. Playwright Harvey Fierstein was approached about making a play based on the happenings at Casa Susanna. He at first refused, but after looking further into the subject decided to move ahead with the project. It is fortunate he did and the result, Casa Valentina is now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage in Boston.

Okay, I can see some of my readers rolling their eyes and saying this has got to be too weird. Why would I spend money to see two hours of drag queens prancing around a stage? Well, I’ll tell you why.

First off this is a very funny play. I don’t remember seeing a play or movie where I wanted to remember so many one-liners since I last saw a Marx Brother’s movie. A number of them are from Oscar Wilde, but most are from the pen of Mr. Fierstein, and they are very, very funny.

While you are laughing you will also begin to see a very interesting story unfold filled with tension and a message of how almost nothing in life is simply black and white. The men who spend time at Casa Valentina are not drag queens.

The men who spend time at Casa Valentina are not drag queens.

The resort is run by Rita and George who are married. George, played by the wonderful Thomas Derrah, also spends time in his female persona Valentina. Kerry A. Dowling plays the part of Rita, a wig designer. The two met at her shop and instantly hit it off and married soon after. George’s dream was to open a place where cross dressing men could spend time together. They opened Casa Valentina in a run down bungalow across the street from a nudist camp in upstate New York.

They play is set in June of 1962 when a small group of men gather to dress and share time together. Jonthan (Greg Maraio) is a newcomer and it is also his first time going public with his other self Miranda. He is very nervous and arrives for dinner looking frumpy and disheveled. The others immediately accept the challenge to give him a makeover and the results are astounding.

Eddie Shields, Thomas Derrah, Robert Saoud Photo Credit: Glenn Perry
Eddie Shields, Thomas Derrah, Robert Saoud
Photo Credit: Glenn Perry

Things turn serious when Charlotte (Will McGarrahan) calls a meeting of the group and tries to convince them to go public with their lifestyle. She has in the past been arrested for what at the time was considered lewd behavior and is defiant. She also publishes a magazine on the subject of cross dressing . Charlotte and Valentina believe it is important for the public to know they are not “faggots”, and are really just normal men doing something they enjoy.

It is interesting that strong feelings of homophobia exist among some of the group

It is interesting that a fairly strong expression of homophobia exists among some of the group who want to exclude gays from being any part of their world. Charlotte tells the others that by going public they will open the door to the day when cross dressing will become as accepted as smoking in public while homosexuals are still hiding in the shadows. We can see how that all worked out.

Most in the group are not at all comfortable with having their names put out publicly, and with good reason. Most are married with families and have jobs. In the early 60s such a revelation would certainly be devastating for them. Given that context,  Charlotte’s request seems quite unreasonable. There is also much disagreement about the banning of gays. Terry (Sean McGuirk) who is one of the older members of the group tells of how she has been thankful for having gay friends because they are accepting of her, and she will in no way turn on them.

To further complicate matters, there is the issue of some pornographic photos that were addressed to George/Valentina but were confiscated by the postal authorities. We come to learn that these photos were meant for Amy (Timothy Crowe), a judge nearing retirement. Charlotte uses this information in an attempt to blackmail the judge and things then explode.

It is very interesting to observe “outsiders” debating how to be accepted by society while at the same time excluding and belittling others who have been shunned and persecuted. It shows that even those who are victims of hate are also very capable of being filled with hate themselves and hurting others.

The scene I found most disturbing is when the Judge’s daughter Eleanor (Deb Martin) arrives at Casa Valentina to retrieve her father’s clothing and wallet. The Judge has been taken to the hospital after realizing his private life was now going to be exposed. She is extremely angry and tears into Rita and George over the pain she and her family have suffered over the years because of her father’s behavior. Ms Martin does a wonderful job in conveying the pent up anger Eleanor is now unleashing, though Rita and George seem completed unaffected by it. They stand there emotionless through it all. Their Narcissism shields them from any feelings of empathy towards Eleanor.

Their Narcissism shields them from any feelings of empathy towards Eleanor.

There is so much more in this excellent play. Direction by Scott Edmiston is top shelf. Costumes, lighting, and set design are also terrific.

I highly recommend Casa Valentina. The one liners are worth the price of admission, but you will get much more than that from this thought provoking play.

Casa Valentina

The SpeakEasy Stage Company

Playing at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion

527 Tremont Street, Boston

Through November 28th