In portraying the dissolution of a lesbian marriage in her new play, Freda and Jem’s Best of the Week, playwright Lois Fine grapples with questions about divorce generally and the particularities of “queer divorce.”
Freda and Jem’s, directed by Judith Thompson, began its run Sept. 13 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and will continue until Oct. 5.
Told through the eyes of Jem, who Fine calls “a butch dyke,” Freda and Jem’s is the story of two women who share kids, and decide to end their marriage.
Fine, 55, herself a mother divorced from a same-sex partner, said the play is meant to give a highly specific account of one family, and that she had no intention of making them “be every queer family.
“Is there a typical divorce story?” Fine mused, speaking to The CJN by phone. “I mean, if you take two straight couples, their divorces are going to be very different from each other.”
In the same breath, she acknowledged that there are elements of splitting up that seem especially germane to a same-sex couple.
“As queer people we’re always aware,” she said, “and our children, too…that we’re being watched. That it’s one wrong move and people are like, ‘aha, they shouldn’t have had kids.’ So you almost have to compensate for that by being like, ‘when we divorce, we’re going to do it right…’ It’s almost like we delude ourselves that our kids won’t notice, because we’ll still be friends, still have Shabbat dinners together.”
And, because, for two women, “it’s very much a conscious choice to go out and have kids and figure out how to do it,” breaking up a marriage can trigger a lot of guilt.
“There’s often this illusion or hope that we can do it better…this feeling that these kids are so wanted…I mean, there are no accidents in a lesbian family. So then it’s like, what are we doing to these kids?”
The play was developed as part of the Buddies in Bad Times’ artist residency program, and marks the first major writing project for Fine, who is on sabbatical from her job as director of finance at YWCA.
Though Freda and Jem’s doesn’t address legal issues, Fine has been involved in LGBTQ activism. She and her former partner were part of the effort that pushed the Ontario Court of Appeal, in 2007, to grant the lesbian co-mother status, meaning two women can put their names on their child’s birth certificate, rather than one woman having to legally adopt the baby.
The play does draw on some aspects of Fine’s life, but she stressed it’s not meant to be autobiographical.
“It might have started off more like my story, but it has [in workshopping the play and developing the story] evolved…the characters are not the people I’ve had relationships with.”
Interestingly, Fine’s 22-year-old daughter Sadie Epstein-Fine plays the daughter of Freda and Jem, something Fine said can be difficult to watch.
“She’s playing a kid who’s devastated [by the divorce] and it’s a very believable performance,” she said. “My heart is in my throat watching it, every day…we did go through divorce with her and that affects my heart…but hopefully, in some ways, it’s also healing [to act in the play].”
Like Fine and her ex, the characters in the play are overtly Jewish, and there are several scenes in which the family lights Shabbat candles and takes turns recounting their best moments of the past week – a ritual after which the play got its name.
Ultimately, in closely examining divorce and its attendant complexities, Freda and Jem’s doesn’t seek to provide solutions, but rather an honest look at the experience, in a way Fine hopes will resonate with people of any sexual orientation.
“[For any couple divorcing,] there’s this desire to do the best for your kids. But there comes the question, ‘Is that really possible? Is it deluded?’ And I don’t know…I think I’m more comfortable asking questions than I am imposing answers right now,”
“What I am sure about is that the play isn’t shying away from the fact [divorce] is really hard on everyone.”