review: southern comfort

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Southern Comfort

Book and lyrics by Dan Collins
Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Featuring Annette O’Toole, Jeff McCarthy, Jeffrey Kuhn
Cap21 Theatre, 18 West 18th Street 5th Floor
October 5, 2011 — November 5, 2011 [extended]
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 5, 2011

  • “You tell the truth and people disappear.”  (Maxwell)
  • “We used to could talk about this.” (Maxwell to Robert — I love the idiomatic language)
Annette O'Toole. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

I catch on its closing day a new musical based on a documentary by Kate Davis illuminating a community of transgendered and originally gendered (is that the phrase — I’ll use it anyway) individuals in rural and urban 1998 Georgia.  Southern Comfort is about finding home and finding community and reaching out and feeling heard and being seen for who one is.  As Robert says about the politics of gender and simultaneously a philosophy for all things in life — what matters is “what’s in your heart and your head, not between your legs”.  Robert Eads (Annette O’Toole), born Barbara, is our pure of heart community leader, battered by society at large yet affirmed in his choice of life and who he loves and the people he collects around him.  This is his story.  And in this delicate moody blue-grassy ballady gem of community building through love, this is our story.

Robert born Barbara loves Lola born John (Jeff McCarthy).  Maxwell born Betty Sue (Jeffrey Kuhn), and helped through his top surgery transition by his beloved “Dad” Robert, loves male-born Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson).  Cas born Debbie (Todd Cerveris) loves Stephanie (Robin Skye).  We don’t follow each story to this point of resolve, we meet them with each other, having made their choices to assemble in, as one ballad tells us their “Chosen Family”.  Myriad doctors, parents, and community members are played by a set of on-stage musicians Alllison Briner, Lizzie Hagstedt, David M. Lutken, and Joel Waggoner who break open the rockabilly genre to wander into Broadway ballads more than once.

Some stage storytelling tension is provided by Robert’s cancer diagnosis, parental rejections, individual decisions about top and bottom transgender surgeries, and attendance at the annual Atlanta Southern Comfort Conference, a ball and conference for gay and transgendered individuals and their loved ones.  Most of all, this mesmerizing and gently moving musical tells of “My Love” and seasons and provides a delightful homage to all songs of home base and homeland called “Home”, calling to mind Dorothy’s “There’s no place like home” in dialogue and in lyrics from “Over the Rainbow” to The Wiz’s “Home”.  Ballads that could indeed have rich lives beyond the book of this particular story.

Set by James J. Fenton sets and keeps us in rustic Georgia, while lights by Ed McCarthy and elegant direction by Thomas Caruso dance us and the characters through suburban family visits and hotel rooms and ballrooms.  A charming and emotional adventure.  Masterful music making.  A story of our time.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 6, 2011)

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