The story that Tony winner Alice Ripley tells in this one-woman show – of an unsophisticated mother named Trisha Lee in the small Texas town of Sparktown who becomes woke after her child Jolene comes out to her as genderqueer – is inspired by playwright Elise Forier Edie’s own experience with her child’s similar announcement at the age of 12. Edie wrote “The Pink Unicorn” in 2011, and has performed it herself to some acclaim since 2013 around the country.
But Trisha Lee differs significantly from Edie herself. The character was widowed at a young age, has apparently never left her hometown and has a job cleaning the sheets and polishing the floors in the local hospital. The playwright was born in Vancouver, traveled to “every continent in the world except Antarctica” before she was 10 (as she puts it on her personal website), and now lives in southern California with a husband who is a writer and an actor.
“All the events in this play happened to somebody,” Edie writes in a note. “But none of the events in this play really happened. Trisha Lee is not me. Jo is not my kid. Sparkton, Texas is not a real place.”
The contrast between the playwright’s life and that of the character she has created feels like a well-meaning effort to dramatize the everyday heroism of ordinary Americans, echoing the kind of character Sally Field portrayed in the film Norma Rae. This is surely intended to combat the accusation that the struggle for LGBTQ rights just reflects what the bigots like to call “San Francisco values.”
But this transposition to the heartland at times undermines the production by the four-year-old New York-based company, Out of the Box Theatrics, presented in the 40-seat theater of the Episcopal Actors Guild. And if Ripley’s performance brings out some of the play’s amusing and moving moments, the direction by Amy E Jones amplifies the flaws in the script.
In the play, Jolene tells Trisha Lee that “she” is now a “they” and wants to be called Jo, not Jolene. Jo also announces they’re starting a chapter of the Gay and Straight Alliance at their high school.
Trisha tells us she doesn’t take this well, wanting to respect her child but unable to understand what all this means. The town’s reaction makes things worse. The high school principal, the inaptly named Cyril Makepeace, refuses to allow the new extracurricular club to meet. Trisha’s mother is appalled that Trisha doesn’t just smack Jolene back into her senses; the minister at Trisha’s church, Pastor Dick, in effect drives Trisha out of the congregation.
Trisha struggles to do what’s right, and winds up arguing with the pastor, enlisting the ACLU to sue the school, even reluctantly participating in a public protest. Over the 90 minutes of the show, she evolves before our eyes to become not just more informed, but wiser, acknowledging her ignorant prejudice towards a series of marginalized people, including a disabled woman who turns out to be a terrific organizer. Trisha even makes peace with her alcoholic older brother, from whom she had been estranged for years.
Some of this is touching. It would be more so if the character weren’t such an exaggerated rube. Her down-home expressions can be vivid — “My gosh, that just made me madder than a polecat in a coop full of rubber chickens” — but she too often implausibly admits to full hick status. “You are looking at me and you are probably thinking I’m a small town woman with a small mind,” she says at one point. “Well, I expect I am.” Later, she says “Well, I am dumb, I know that. And I can be like a cow, I expect, sort of standing in the field, you know, letting everything happen around me. But even I know….” It doesn’t help that the director has decided to have Ripley speak in a thick, lower middle class Texas twang. I’m not acquainted enough with the region to know whether or not the actress has mastered the actual accent – it sure didn’t sound authentic to me – but, true to life or not, the unvaried sing-songy rhythm starts to grate. There is a noticeable lack of variety in the performance as a whole. I don’t blame this on Ripley. Much more could have been done with the blocking and the lighting to shape the storytelling.
Still, it would be churlish to dismiss “The Pink Unicorn,” which, like “The Cake” earlier this year, has a warm heart, an endearing character at its center, and the admirable mission of bringing that character gently and jovially through the thickets of the culture wars to (what I and most theatergoers in Manhattan view as) enlightenment and empowerment. In an argument with her mother and her pastor, Trisha Lee points out that “shortly after that one line about homosexuality, the Bible says it’s an unforgiveable crime against God to eat shrimp — which means men kissing men is about on par with a dinner at Red Lobster in the sin department.”
To her Jo, she comes around, in a way that might make even some savvy New Yorkers cry: “Loving you, just the way you are, is the one thing in this world’s gonna get me closer to God.”
The Pink Unicorn
Out of the Box Theatricsproduction at The Episcopal Actors Guild (1 East 29thStreet)
Written by Elise Forier Edie, directed by Amy Jones. Production and lighting design by Frank Hartley, costumes by Hunter Dowell.
Cast: Alice Ripley
The Pink Unicorn is on stage through June 2, 2019