Annette O’Toole plays the dying patriarch of a transgender family in this musical adaptation of the 2001 documentary, a Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance.
The musical Southern Comfort, about a makeshift family composed largely of transgender people, has been in the works for more than a decade. Adapted from Kate Davis’ award-winning 2001 documentary, it was first seen in New York in 2011. Now it’s returned in a revamped version presented by the Public Theater, and the increasing focus on trans rights in intervening years has only made it timelier.
Much like the film, the musical by Dan Collins (book and lyrics) and Julianne Wick Davis (music) concentrates on the last year or so in the life of Robert Eads, (Annette O’Toole), the patriarch of the clan, who was born Barbara. His partner is Lola (Jeff McCarthy), who struggles to wear blouses, downplaying her massive shoulders, and who reassumes her male identity while at the office. The other members of the group who meet once a month for Sunday barbecue are Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), who regards Robert as a father figure; his vivacious girlfriend Carly (Aneesh Sheth); the female-to-male Sam (Donnie Cianciotto) and his girlfriend Melanie (Robin Skye), a biological woman drawn to Sam’s gentleness after suffering through a series of bad marriages.
Robert is dying, ironically, of ovarian cancer. “The last and only part of you that’s still female and he’s trying to kill you with it,” Jackson says bitterly about the doctor’s diagnosis.
The musical — whose title refers to an annual conference in Atlanta that one character describes as “the cotillion of the transgender community” — movingly depicts the characters’ constant struggle for respect and tolerance from both family members and neighbors. Robert is rebuffed by local doctors who are uncomfortable treating him, and his elderly parents refuse to acknowledge his male identity. More drama ensues from Jackson’s agonizing over whether to have reconstructive surgery that would complete his process of becoming a male. When he finally decides to go through with it, the decision causes a rift with Robert, who argues, “It goes and reduces gender back to what’s between the legs.”
Despite the serious subject matter, the show contains plenty of humor. When Jackson and Carly take their respective hormone shots together, she points out, “Mine makes me irritable and yours makes you horny.”
“Well, mine’s workin’,” he playfully replies.
Southern Comfort suffers at times from its lack of narrative momentum and languorous pace, and the bluegrass/country flavored musical score does little to enliven it, with far too many emotive ballads of self-empowerment in the mix. Still, there are some lovely songs, such as “Chosen Family” and “My Love,” and it’s performed well by the onstage four-piece band, whose members also effectively play a variety of minor roles.
O’Toole, virtually unrecognizable with a mustache, goatee and aviator glasses, is outstanding, thoroughly immersing herself in her role. And McCarthy is equally good as the perpetually awkward Lola — she brings sun-dried tomato hummus to her first Sunday gathering, with Robert explaining to the bemused others that “she’s very worldly.” McCarthy’s romantic scenes with the diminutive O’Toole have an amusing Mutt and Jeff quality.
The supporting cast includes the excellent Kuhn and Skye, who have been with the show since its beginnings, and Cianciotto and Sheth, transgender performers recruited for this production. Both lend such a welcome authenticity to their performances that one hopes future versions will be entirely cast in a similar manner. This is a show that clearly has its heart in the right place, displaying a compassion toward its well-etched characters that is impossible not to share.
Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Donnie Cianciotto, Lizzie Hagstedt, Jeffrey Kuhn, Elizabeth Ward Land, David M. Lutken, Jeff McCarthy, Morgan Morse, Annette O’Toole, Aneesh Sheth, Robin Skye, Joel Waggoner
Director: Thomas Caruso
Book & lyrics: Dan Collins
Music: Julianne Wick Davis
Set designer: James F. Fenton
Costume designer: Patricia E. Doherty
Lighting designer: Ed McCarthy
Sound designer: Andrew Keister
Choreographer: Ryan Kasprzak
Presented by the Public Theater