Speakeasy’s ‘Casa Valentina’ A House Divided (3.5 Stars)

‘Casa Valentina’ – Written by Harvey Fierstein; Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through November 28.

“I think of being a boy as my day job”, explains one of the denizens of Casa Valentina. Based on a real life refuge for cross-dressing heterosexuals in the 1960’s Catskills, Casa Valentina offers a 14-hour glimpse of what is supposed to be a relaxing weekend for men who are forced to pretend.  

We are introduced to the retreat through the eyes of Jonathon (Greg Maraio), a married schoolteacher who is a first-time visitor. He is taken under the wing of Rita (Kerry Dowling), a sort of cheery den mother and co-owner of the Casa, along with her cross dressing husband, George (Thomas Derrah). As Jonathan meets the other guests, he is encouraged, through an enthusiastic makeover, to let his female self, Miranda, shine through. What none of the guests know is that the Casa is on the verge of financial ruin, and only a loan from the well-heeled and influential Charlotte (formidably played by Will McGarrahan), publisher of a magazine for cross-dressers, can save it. However, Charlotte has an agenda of her own, and when some of the men refuse to be pigeonholed and even blackmailed, all hell breaks loose.

Fierstein’s intent was to illustrate that no two people are alike; even in a community where people are gathered to share their proclivity for female clothing, everybody’s reasons for doing so are different. Charlotte insists that all of them must be heterosexual. Others bristle at this. Some of the female identities come forth as a sort of dissociative identity disorder, taking over their male hosts in unexpected ways. While all of this is interesting, it’s a large thematic undertaking that the brisk two and a half hours of “Casa Valentina” barely scratches the surface of, leaving this reviewer somewhat unsatisfied and a little confused.

That said, the cast of “Casa Valentina” is uniformly superb. In the thankless role of good sport Rita – the only female onstage who doesn’t get to be glamorous and feminine – Kerry Dowling is appropriately cheerful, and when pushed, desperate. Thomas Derrah is excellent as the world weary George and competent Valentina. Sean McGuirk’s Terry is quietly effective; one of the play’s more moving moments is a monologue that she delivers on the kindness and loyalty of the homosexual community. Greg Maraio strikes the perfect balance between shy Jonathon and girlish Miranda. As Gloria, Eddie Shields is persuasive, snappy and quite simply, very beautiful.  If I could get my hair to look half as good as hers, I would be a very happy woman. Will McGarrahan is frightening and powerful as the narrow-minded Charlotte. Timothy Crowe brings a macho and credible edge to the Judge/Amy, while his daughter, effectively played by Deb Martin, illustrates the pain these men and their secret lives bring to their families by alienating them. Robert Saoud lightens the mood with his bubbly Bessie.

Janie E. Howland’s colorful set and Dewey Dellay’s original music and sound design wonderfully capture the mood and atmosphere of 1960’s Catskills. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/