Though Eva Hartman shares the same first name with the woman she depicts in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, she’s more interested in ways the audience might resonate with her character.
Despite being frequently labeled “the lesbian The Big Chill,” Asheville on Broadway’s current production, says Hartman, “deals with many universal themes: life, love, loss and overcoming obstacles. There’s also the theme of immortality: How do you pass something of yourself on to future generations?”
Hartman’s musings sum up, to some extent, the reason behind the local production of the play. Asheville on Broadway, a volunteer-based theater group, presents a show a year to raise AIDS awareness in the community — and to raise funds for those living with the disease.
It’s a labor of love started by Greg Haller, an AIDS activist and theater enthusiast who realized that melding his two passions together could provoke real change.
He teamed up with Lisa Morphew and Kermit Brown to produce the first three AIDS-related shows: The Normal Heart in 1999; Quilt in 2000 and last year’s The Laramie Project. When Haller passed away this summer, Morphew honored her promise to keep Asheville on Broadway going.
“We do this because some people think AIDS is done,” Morphew explains. “All of the money we raise goes to agencies working with people living with AIDS. None of it goes toward salaries or anything like that.
“Greg and I had a lot of fun working on the shows together,” she adds. “Now Kermit and I are doing everything, and it’s been a challenge. But everyone’s been terrific.”
A memorial to Haller will precede the event, though no doubt his presence will permeate the whole show.
Not just a women’s show
Written by Jane Chambers, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove is the story of a group of friends thrown together to overcome the pain of death — and life.
Morphew is quick to admit, “This play doesn’t deal directly with AIDS. We decided to do this because in dealing with illness and AIDS, women often get left out — though these days it’s more women and children contracting the disease.”
Martha Wheeler, who plays Sue, the aging sugar mama, offers some perspective: “Last year with The Laramie Project, Asheville on Broadway began to deal with stigma, which is a huge part of the disease. This year they’ve gone to women, too. They’ve come so far from the first show [The Normal Heart], dealing with men and AIDS, that they’ve brought it around 360 degrees to show we’re all dealing with the same things.”
Janet Oliver, cast as Kitty the feminist physician, adds, “It’s not just a women’s show. I think people will see their friends and sisters in these characters. It’s a play for anyone who’s dealt with close friendships, and for anyone who’s lost someone.”
“With an open mind, everyone in the community can relate to this show,” Hartman agrees.
Unfortunately, not everyone can relate to the idea of the show.
“There’s been some trouble with the poster getting put up or staying up,” Wheeler says.
The poster includes a colorful photo depicting the cast assembled for a group shot; they look like a bunch of friends on vacation (which they are). It’s an innocuous image, but under the photo are the words “lesbian play of love and loss.”
“The ‘L’ word still makes people a little nervous,” Wheeler notes. “People can’t quite get with that word. We hope the play will make that unknown more known because you’re able to get inside these women’s lives.”
She goes on to explain, “If you took a bunch of straight people who all vacationed in the same place every year and all eventually had affairs with each other, you’d have the same play.”
As Oliver considers her reasons for joining the play, she quickly points out, “This is the first show [Asheville on Broadway has] done with an all-female cast.”
“I think the lesbian community will be thrilled,” says Wheeler. “Finally they can go to Diana Wortham and see a play about their lives. Some folks may find that difficult. Hopefully, it will educate.”
Like the other actors, Wheeler speaks of the woman she portrays in the play with warmth. “I like my character because I get to represent the dysfunction in all of us,” she adds. “That’s satisfying to me.”
Hartman’s affinity for her the runaway housewife she plays is more conditional.
“My character has experienced loss,” Hartman explains. “She wants to experience life. By the end of the play, she’s really learned a lot about herself.”
Though the actress doesn’t totally connect with her namesake, she found that learning to play Eva still meant drawing on her own experiences.
“The play highlights feminism in the 1980s,” she explains. “I can relate to what my character’s going through because I’ve seen it in so many other women.”
Bluefish Cove is about a group of women thrown together by chance. As they deal with the death of a close friend, they form a tightly knit community — a family, in essence. The play is expectedly bittersweet.
“It is funny,” Morphew promises. “It’s more comic than other plays we’ve done. It’s set back with Afros and bright clothes.”