Rachel Zampelli, left, and Maria Rizzo as the combative lovers of “The Gulf.” (Margot Schulman)
Theater critic

“The Gulf” takes place in the middle of a river and long past the middle of a relationship, a point at which all the irritations and grievances and compromises that have accumulated in a life together test each partner’s faith in the bond and belief that going on would have any lasting value.

The surprise in Signature Theatre’s evocative staging of Audrey Cefaly’s sharply observed new play is that “The Gulf” concerns the love between two women. And what I mean by surprise is that the story posits the two characters — Rachel Zampelli’s laconic Kendra and Maria Rizzo’s restless Betty — as just a pair of ordinary people, confronted by the realization that what each now wants is not in any way a priority for the other.

We’ve grown accustomed to narrative art that presents the challenge to the love between gay people as an external threat. How refreshing to encounter a play that does not feel it has to document its sexual politics or suggest that the family’s or community’s reaction, in a part of the country not renowned for tolerance, is what drives a decisive wedge between the characters.

Doubtless, in the lives of Kendra and Betty — hearty women working menial jobs in the Bubba-infested backwaters of southern Alabama — there have been brushes with bigotry. But in this world premiere the canny Cefaly, who has an ear for the cadence of the region, is far more interested in the wounds Kendra and Betty have inflicted on each other, and whether whatever comfort they find in each other’s arms outweighs the pressure of their rapidly diverging goals and expectations.

In other words, they’re just like everyone else.

The 85-minute comedy-drama is invested with an assured, soulful intimacy by director Joe Calarco. The audience eavesdrops on the women as they spend a lazy afternoon in Kendra’s beloved boat, with Kendra fishing for channel bass — and Betty fishing for a deeper commitment from Kendra.

As we will discover, Betty falls somewhat short of the title of most trustworthy mate on the planet, which makes Kendra all the crankier and Betty’s demands, for some sign that Kendra wants to stay with her, all the more laughable. “The Gulf” is, for sure, drama in a minor key, a character-driven story requiring meticulous portraiture; if there is any slight chink in its construction, it’s in the attempt to draw Betty as an unfocused woman forcing her lover to become more focused. We’re given confusing signals, for example, on the level of Betty’s intelligence: She is depicted at some points as a good-time gal who can’t even pronounce “existential.” At other times, she’s versed in wine pairings and uses “obtuse” properly in a sentence. No wonder Kendra doesn’t entirely know what to make of her.

“The Gulf” finds a pleasing home in Signature’s second space, the Ark, whose in-the-round seating for the occasion places the audience along an imaginary shoreline and designer Paige Hathaway’s see-though rendering of Kendra’s fishing skiff out on the water. The occasional sound effect lets us hear the drop of her hook and line into the river, and smartly, the boat rotates languidly so that our perspective on the women is in flux.

As is the strength of their connection. Zampelli and Rizzo remind us here that they are capable utility players, able to move from musicals to plays and back again; Zampelli received admiring reviews for her “Evita” this summer at Olney Theatre Center, and Rizzo was a compelling Louise in Calarco’s 2013 “Gypsy” at Signature. They’re well matched in “The Gulf.” Zampelli gives a marvelous account of the world-weary Kendra, who knows her own limitations and is drained by the puppy-grade enthusiasms of Rizzo’s intensely seductive Betty. Rizzo ably conveys the confidence Betty has in her sexual power, a magnetism that both beguiles and defeats Kendra.

“I’m not the answer, baby. I’m not. I’m just me,” Kendra confesses at one point, and in Zampelli’s troubled gaze and limp posture, you get the intriguing suggestion of a woman who once upon a time thought more of herself than this.

That the Alabama-bred Cefaly is getting a first-rate platform at Signature is due at least in part to the exposure another of her plays, “Maytag Virgin,” received last season from Bethesda’s Quotidian Theatre Company as part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. “The Gulf” is evidence of how a community-wide effort such as the festival can continue to lift all of our boats.

The Gulf, by Audrey Cefaly. Directed by Joe Calarco. Set, Paige Hathaway; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Andrew Cissna; sound, Kenny Neal; casting, Walter Ware III; production stage manager, Julie Meyer. About 85 minutes. Tickets, $40-$89. Through Nov. 6 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit sigtheatre.org or call 703-820-9771.