Near the end of the bluegrass musical “Southern Comfort,” a character named Lola Cola visits the parents of her lover Robert Eads to tell them that he has died.
“Get off our property,” says Robert’s father.
But Lola persists: “Like it or not, you raised the most amazing person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.”
It is a deeply touching scene, surely more so because Robert Eads and Lola Cola are not just characters. They were among the real people who were featured in a 2001 film documentary with the same name as the musical. The documentary and the musical are about a group of transgender men and women who gathered once a month for Sunday dinners in Robert Eads’ home in the rural town of Toccoa, Georgia. They were people who had been rejected by the families into which they had been born, and had formed a “family of choice.”
But it also helps that the two are brought to life on stage in two remarkable and very different performances. The actress Annette O’Toole is unrecognizable and completely credible as the bewhiskered, flannel-shirted Robert Eads, a self-declared if somewhat under-sized Bubba who was born as Barbara. In the central irony of the show, Robert Eads is dying of ovarian cancer — as another character, Jackson, points out, “the last and only part of you that’s still female.”
Jeff McCarthy looks like a big man dressed as a woman, which is how other members of the chosen family saw Lola, and why she is initially resented. (“She ain’t even started on hormones yet.”) But if O’Toole is low-key in her role, McCarthy is aptly high-key in his, and greatly affecting, whether speaking or singing.
The other performers also do justice to their parts (including most of the on-stage band who are enlisted to do double-duty as minor characters, such as Robert’s parents.) Kudos to the Public Theater for having cast two of the six principal characters with transgender performers, Donnie Cianciotto as Sam, and stand-out Aneesh Sheth as Carly.
“Southern Comfort” the musical comes to the Public at a time when transgender representation on stage and screen has become something of a trend, although the musical’s creators began work on it a decade ago, and there have been two previous productions, including one in New York. Its novelty has diminished since it was first conceived, and perhaps some of its importance. There is also a struggle to give this musical an overall shape, a problem that didn’t exist in the documentary; maybe documentary filmgoers are grateful and amazed that the randomly shot footage winds up edited into any discernible plot at all. The musical offers a frame — the last year of Robert’s life, and the last time he will be alive to attend Southern Comfort, the name of an annual conference of transgender people in Atlanta that Robert’s family are aiming to attend. Within that frame, the creative team has placed 19 songs, and several reprises – all of which are tuneful, some of which are moving or amusing, a few of which are repetitive enough to have been cut without discernible damage.
All through “Southern Comfort” are worthwhile moments of insight and emotion, such as the tension between Robert and Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn ), another female to male transgender – a relationship that both see akin to father and son, and one just as complicated. There is suspicion about newcomers into the family. Some of the squabbles, like those in any family, are mined for humor. The old-timers bet on which of the newcomers, Lola or Carly, will try Melanie’s snicker salad first. Melanie explains the ingredients: “Snickers, green apples, cool whip and vanilla puddin’. But the secrets in the puddin’. What’s in it? It’s gotta be instant!” It’s a down-home recipe updated for the way we live now.
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The Public Theater
Book and Lyrics by Dan Collins
Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Choreography by Ryan Kasprzak
Music Director David M. Lutken
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Based on the Film by Kate Davis
Conceived for the stage by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso
Featuring Donnie Cianciotto as Sam, Lizzie Hagstedt as Storyteller/bass,Jeffrey Kuhn as Jackson, Elizabeth Ward Land as Storyteller/Percussion, David M. Lutken as Storyteller/Guitar, Jeff McCarthy as Lola Cola, Morgan Morse as pianist, Annette O’Toole as Robert Eads, Aneesh Sheth as Carly, Robin Skye as Melanie, and Joel Waggoner as Storyteller/Violin.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission
Southern Comfort is scheduled to run through March 27, 2016