By Kelly Corcoran
Southern Comfort, a new much-buzzed about musical at The Public Theater, may have lost some of its anticipated punch with a production so soon after transgender issues have become more predominant in our national dialogue, in part thanks to the transition of Caitlyn Jenner. That doesn’t make it any less important, however. It is still a thoughtful and timely piece on the discoveries – with both unsuspecting hardships and much-needed and welcomed love – that individuals encounter on the transgender journey. A full-fledged production with sophisticated arrangements and a catchy bluegrass folk score, it features sublime harmonies that seem to melt on a hot piece of cornbread; fitting for its setting in the rural back hills of Georgia.
Southern Comfort begins on Easter Sunday at the home of Robert Eads (Annette O’Toole) who, along with his “chosen family,” is celebrating the holiday and their bi-monthly gathering. The group has met through “Southern Comfort,” Atlanta’s yearly conference for the Trans community. There, Robert destabilizes the group’s tight-knit dynamic by introducing his new lady love, Lola (Jeff McCarthy). Newcomers inevitably cause apprehension within the group; this is their comfortable and safe place to come together with family, and is a far cry from the judgments of strangers or their own biological families.
Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) who identifies as Robert’s “son” is especially resistant to Lola and the new relationship. Born female and estranged from his own parents, Jackson has become entirely male except for one final detail that will painstakingly – physically and emotionally – be addressed by a phalloplasty. His commitment to the transformation is in contrast to Lola, who has yet to start hormone therapy and has to live a double life.
The onstage band (the Storytellers) acts like a Greek chorus, providing musical accompaniment throughout. In “Bird,” Lola meditates on being trapped in a man’s body, likening it to being the animal in the song’s title, small-framed and graceful. Her powerful, booming voice pairs perfectly with the more traditionally female-sounding vocals by storyteller Lizzie Hagstedt – making for a hauntingly beautiful moment. Another moving musical testimonial is found in “Barbara,” a folksy camp fire tale of Robert’s frustrating childhood as a “girl,” forced into frilly dresses and given dollies that he would promptly trade for his brother’s bow and arrow.
Much like within a typical father-son relationship, conflicts arise in the Southern Comfort family. Robert believes Jackson’s need for surgery only reaffirms society’s argument that “gender is defined by what’s between your legs.” In the powerful number “I Don’t Need Another Father,” Jackson points out that the last remaining female organs Robert opted not to have removed are literally killing him; Robert is in the terminal stages of ovarian cancer. The escalation between their conflicting ideas brings their relationship, once impenetrable, to a breaking point.
The Southern Comfort Conference in the second act represents, like their home gatherings once did, a place without judgment and reminder that no one is alone. It provides an opportunity for individuals to live as their new gender. Despite his debilitating illness and having lost all communication with Jackson, Robert remains deeply in love with Lola. His commitment to her, and to being at the conference, is a beautiful reminder that at the end of our lives, the magical moments stand out amidst the pain, disappointment and betrayal.
The perfect blend of the cast and The Storytellers allow the audience to become absorbed into the show and setting, including the weatherworn set designed by James Fenton, lit by Ed McCarthy, which includes a very special tree; one composed of objects of Americana-like fragments of old memories that comprise the human soul.
Southern Comfort is based on a 2001 documentary and film with the same title by Kate Davis. It took years for the real Robert Eads, born Barbara, to receive proper gynecological treatment as a transsexual. The medical community’s delay in providing care ultimately caused Eads’ death. The casting of real trans actors Donnie Cianciotto and Aneesh Sheth in the roles of Sam and Carly allowed their true personal histories as well as those of Eads and others like him to come to life on the stage.
This inventive musical adaptation omits the fact that the real-life Robert Eads was married and had his own biological children when he was still Barbara. In fact, the film version of his life depicts Robert spending time with his grandson who knows his grandmother as “Pa.” Perhaps this is a missed creative opportunity to further explore the evolution of each generation’s relationship with gender and family. Or perhaps…it is the story for another show.
Southern Comfort plays The Public Theater through March 27. For more information and tickets, visit www.publictheater.org.