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Southern Comfort

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Are there any great musicals about causes? It's not hard to come up with a whole bevy of plays that fall into that category, from inarguably Great Writers like Clifford Odets and Tony Kushner, but musicals are a different animal. Their unique storytelling form derives from and speaks to the heart more than it does the head, so intellectually activist approaches tend to fall flat. With musicals, the plot and characters must rule the roost. When they don't and the writers are determined to push ahead anyway, you get something like, well, Southern Comfort, which just opened at The Public Theater.

Based on a 2001 documentary about the last year in the life of a Georgian female-to-male transsexual named Robert Eads, Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis's musical is endlessly respectful of the unique challenges faced by the transgender community. Every song explores some new aspect of life. Current men musing on what they've learned since becoming women. The freedom that living as your true self allows. The extravagant joy of attending the Atlanta conference that gives the show its name. Becoming aroused in places you no longer have. The sting of ignorant prejudice. How difficult it can be facing the ghost of your previous name. Repudiating the family who spurned you when you most needed their love. And that's just Act I!

This is first and foremost a message show—and plays like it. Robert (Annette O'Toole) is wasting away from cancer in the ovaries he never had removed. Knowing time is short, he surrounds himself with his "chosen family": girlfriend Lola (Jeff McCarthy), who's reluctant to leap into a new life high heels first; surrogate "son" Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), who's pondering getting surgery that would make his change official, which the old-fashioned Robert sees as dangerous and foolhardy; Sam (Donnie Cianciotto), who's still nursing the physical and mental scars incurred from the surgery to remove his one-time breasts; and two girlfriends, Jackson's Carly (Aneesh Sheth), who is herself transgender, and Sam's Melanie (Robin Skye), who is (gasp) biologically female. And we peer into their world as they discover, bicker, and, most important, come together, just like a blood family.

Collins, however, is content to be rigidly formulaic in structuring his libretto, as though no gentle care is required. "But Darlin'," Robert says at one point, "SoCo ain't a place that don't accept you for that. Heck, it's one of the few places that understands."

"You talk like it's Heaven on Earth," Lola coos.

"Don't sound so far off," Robert replies.

Jeffrey Kuhn with Aneesh Sheth, Donnie Cianciotto,
Robin Skye, and Jeff McCarthy
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Then there are the lyrics. "When I'm asleep / I see myself behind my eyes / Inside the dark / I'm more than sound and shape and size," sings Lola of her sense of identity. Or there's this from Robert, on his earlier life as a girl: "Young Barbara / Would never understand / How the world could have a whole life planned / Other folk could follow it and glory knows she tried / But the truth kept gettin' bigger 'til it grew too much to hide." In contrast, Carly sings, during her Southern Comfort seminar, "We weren't born with definitions / We were slates and we were clean / We just followed their instructions / And grew into the same routine."

Although I question whether any of this was ever actually insightful, it certainly no longer is today. Davis's string-heavy music (which she's orchestrated with David M. Lutken and Joel Waggoner) has a lovely bluegrass sound that modulates gently with the changing of the story's seasons, but it doesn't move beyond that to bestow the original and precise feelings that the lyrics eschew. Only one number, Sam and Melanie's "I'm With You," ties a specific occurrence to a specific relationship and musicalizes it—if the result is still on the utilitarian side ("So sound the alarm / We're goin' arm in arm / Ain't no other thing I'd rather do"), it's the closest to a moment that's more about connecting than checking off a box on a tolerance checklist.

Under Thomas Caruso's direction, the action at least moves an acceptable clip, and scenic designer James J. Fenton, costume designer Patricia E. Doherty, and lighting designer Ed McCarthy have established a cozy and handsome backwoods atmosphere that sets the right nostalgia-tinged tone. (The set's centerpiece, Robert's prized tree, cleverly combines picket-fence slats with photos and found objects representing its owner's inner circle.) And the performers capture the appropriate country-livin', God-fearin' personalities at play here, with O'Toole's pained, barking Robert, thoroughly awash with degraded gentility, and Kuhn's impassioned Jackson the standouts. But everyone, including the band members (Lutken, Waggoner, Lizzie Hagstedt, Elizabeth Ward Land, and Morgan Morse), who play more than a few roles during the evening, is clearly invested in this the cleanest, clearest statement of this particular intent that it can be.

For Collins and Davis that statement is apparently enough—but on this side of the stage, I'm not at all convinced, even if the show is leaner and warmer than when I first encountered it at CAP21 in 2011 (with many of the same members of the cast and creative team). Plays can get away with intense advocating of world-changing ideas because they possess the time and ammunition needed to explain and argue them fully. But if the words don't—or, rather, can't—eventually enter into the rarefied territory of emotion so raw that only song can give it adequate voice, you don't have a musical—or a real one, anyway.

Note that although this synthesis is difficult to achieve, it's not impossible. You need look no further than the likes of Show Boat, Finian's Rainbow, South Pacific, The King and I, West Side Story, Cabaret, 1776, Chicago, and any number of other familiar titles to see how big, socially relevant topics can be treated in thoughtful ways and still deliver on magic and entertainment. Alas, Southern Comfort, as rich in advocacy as it might be, is dirt poor when it comes to those two vital qualities.

Southern Comfort
Through March 27
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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