Street Corner Arts’ production of “The Gulf” written by Audrey Cefaly and directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, is an intimate drama set on a fishing boat on the Alabama delta. When their motor breaks and they end up stranded, Kendra (Natalie Garcia) and Betty (Kelsey Mazak) work through their messy relationship.
The two women speak with strong but clear Southern accents that root them in a shared regional identity, but their differences are apparent. While talkative, affectionate, and unaffected Betty babbles about the neighbor’s cats, practical and straightforward Kendra fishes and pretends not to hear her. Their moments of affection and laughter make it easy to root for them as a couple, but these are rarer than their tense exchanges. The cause of this tension emerges slowly, as the audience gradually gets to know the characters.
After dating for years, Betty feels like Kendra doesn’t reach for her anymore, an emotional distance that is probably symptomatic of her anxieties about their different goals and future plans. While Kendra is satisfied with a blue collar job and fishing on the weekends, Betty is sick of bartending, and plans to enroll in junior college to study social work. Betty knows Kendra could do more if she wanted to, and wants to help her find a career path so they can go to school together. She flips through a career workbook offering suggestions that fit Kendra’s skills and gruff personality, from prison guard to mortuary science, not all of which are inspiring.
A hurt Kendra admits that Betty’s encouragement to go to school makes her feel like Betty looks down on her current situation. And when Kendra discovers that Betty recently visited the person she’s cheated on her with before, it all comes to a boiling point. They may be fishing in the shallows, but these are emotionally deep waters.
All this takes place in the roughly 8-foot by 3-foot boat angled across a corner of Hyde Park Theatre’s playing space, on a set designed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. As the play opens, the actors lounge across it. Later on, the tight set helps draw out the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, and emphasizes the characters’ inability to connect despite their physical proximity.
While the isolated setting allows them to have much needed heavy conversations without interruption, it is by no means a dream world. The ecology of the region is part of who these women are, and references to gulf oil spills that affected the fishing in the region demonstrate that the delta is not idyllic, but rather a damaged ecosystem is trying to recover.
Through their problems and fighting, Betty and Kendra both feel like fully realized characters. They lash out and try to make amends. They describe their attraction to each other, and the night they first met. In tender moments, they discuss loss and their relationships with their parents.
“The Gulf” gets at the basic questions of trust and love that shape all relationships, by focusing on the specific, building a world through language while remaining tightly focused on two characters’ story. Excellent performances maintain the show’s momentum, making for a play filled with humor and heart.
‘The Gulf’ continues through Dec. 17 at Hyde Park Theatre, streetcornerarts.org