It was only five years ago that “Fun Home” made history as the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian lead character, then proceeded to win a passel of Tony Awards before going on a national tour that included a stop at the Boston Opera House.
But progress usually occurs more quietly and incrementally than that. So it’s worth noting, and celebrating, the staging of several productions by local theater companies in which long-term relationships between two women serve as the fulcrum: Company One Theatre’s “Wolf Play,” Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Bright Half Life,” and Lyric Stage’s just-closed “The Cake.”
In ways small and not-so-small, these plays are helping to provide a fuller picture of the world we live in — theater’s job, after all. Yet for many years that picture was incomplete. Lesbians were either invisible or treated as a punchline onstage (as were, too often, gay men).
Now, lesbians have at least begun to edge into the foreground, being given their dramatic due with multifaceted portrayals and complex narratives that explore their lives and experiences in particularized detail.
It’s a welcome development that adds a new dimension to the traditional family drama. Reflecting the legalization of same-sex marriage, all three couples in “The Cake,” “Wolf Play,” and “Bright Half Life” are either married or about to tie the knot. The couples in all three plays are interracial. In “Bright Half Life” and “Wolf Play,” we see the women not just as romantic partners but as parents grappling with the challenging responsibilities of raising young children while also trying to launch or sustain careers.
When an art form takes a forward step, it can prompt a look back at historical antecedents. One of the highlights of last year in Boston was Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” a co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company and the Center Theatre Group that chronicled the real-life story of a Yiddish theater troupe whose cast and producer were arrested and convicted on obscenity charges in the 1920s for staging a play depicting a lesbian relationship, in New York.
“Indecent” provided a reminder of how explosive that subject once was. Another reminder, of course can be found in Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.” In that 1934 drama, the lives and careers of two female heads of a boarding school are ruined when a vindictive student falsely claims that they are having a lesbian affair. Eventually, one of the women commits suicide.
Apart from the question of simple justice, it’s only logical that theater makers have turned their attention in recent years to the rich but largely neglected dramatic territory of lesbian lives and experiences. After all, expanding the range of human stories is not just the goal of playwrights but essentially their raison d’etre.
Moreover, we are in a cultural moment when the conversation in theater has intensified on the subject of representation. Theater people talk often about the need to populate the stage in ways that look more like the world beyond it, to hold the mirror up to the new social realities of a more diverse nation.
Not so incidentally, there has been a huge shift in public attitudes in the years since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2004, the year this state took that landmark step, the Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, with 31 percent in favor. Last year, a Pew survey found that the numbers had almost exactly flipped, with 61 percent supporting same-sex marriage and 31 percent opposed.
As gay people asserted their rights — including the right to have their stories told — an appetite grew among theatergoers to see that social change and the history behind it reflected onstage. (And on television, too, viz., “The Fosters,” “The L Word” and its sequel, “The L Word: Generation Q,” “Gentleman Jack.”) In “Fun Home,” presented at SpeakEasy Stage Company in 2018, a year after the touring production played at the Opera House, audiences saw a layered portrait, from three distinct angles, of a middle-aged, self-described “lesbian cartoonist” as she retraced her tumultuous childhood and her sexual awakening in college while struggling to solve the puzzle of her closeted gay father’s suicide.
Later this year, a big-name cast that includes Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Kerry Washington will star in Ryan Murphy’s film version of “The Prom,” a hit Broadway musical comedy about vain stage performers who rally to the cause of an Indiana high schooler who is prevented from taking her girlfriend to the prom.
So we don’t get too sanguine about how much progress has been made, plays showcasing lesbian characters take pains to remind us of the persistence of discrimination.
In Tanya Barfield’s “Bright Half Life,” which is at the BCA’s Plaza Theatre through Sunday, the father of one character, Vicky (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), refuses to attend her wedding to Erica (Kelly Chick). In Bekah Brunstetter’s “The Cake,” a native North Carolinian named Jen (Chelsea Diehl) is jolted when the kindly hometown baker she views as a virtual godmother refuses, for religious reasons, to bake a cake for her wedding to her fiancée, Macy (Kris Sidberry). In Hansol Jung’s “Wolf Play,” which is at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall through Feb. 29, Ash (Tonasia Jones) and Robin (Inés de la Cruz) adopt a boy from Korea, only to face a custody fight, inspired by homophobia, from the very man who put the boy up for adoption on the Internet — and Robin’s own brother sides with him.
Yet the women in these dramas are not solely defined by those challenges. “Bright Half Life” is rife with moments of passion, tenderness, or adventure: Vicky and Erica engage in their first kiss, hold hands atop a Ferris wheel, try skydiving. There are conversations about work — including blunt talk from Vicky how race factors into her career decisions — and disputes over the mundane details of domestic life: hair in the drain, used floss left on the sink, deciding whether Pop-Tarts are a suitable breakfast for a kid. In “Wolf Play,” it’s touching to see how Ash, a boxer who is initially opposed to adopting Wolf (Minh-Anh Day) because she is preparing for her first professional match, bonds with the boy, bantering with him over morning bowls of cereal. Her ambitions don’t wane, but her priorities subtly shift, and the sheer strength of their connection brings Wolf out of his shell quite dramatically in a pivotal scene.
For all the encouraging signs that lesbian stories are finally getting the attention they deserve, no one should be resting on any laurels. It was not until age 65, with “Indecent,” that Paula Vogel made her Broadway debut — and that was only three years ago, even though she had won the Pulitzer Prize as far back as 1998 (for “How I Learned to Drive”).
Renowned as a teacher and mentor to aspiring young playwrights — a number of whom had plays produced on Broadway years before she did — Vogel has spoken candidly of the fact that early in her career she had to “be very realistic as a woman and as an out lesbian in terms of what my own trajectory would be.” Theater’s job now is to ensure there are no constraints on such trajectories ever again.