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Southern Comfort: Theater review by Raven Snook
One of the benefits of the world moving so fast is how quickly society's take on gender identity can evolve. Four years ago, when Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis's chamber musical Southern Comfort played Off-Off Broadway at Cap 21, Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner didn't exist. And since the country-infused show is based on Kate Davis's 2001 documentary about a tight-knit "chosen family" of transgender friends living in rural Georgia in 1998, there's been almost two decades of change since patriarch Robert Eads (the luminous and unrecognizable Annette O'Toole) tragically died of ovarian cancer after a dozen doctors refused to treat him due to his sex. While transfolk still don't have it easy, they certainly have a lot more visibility than they used to, especially in theater. All of this conspires to make this heartfelt, well-meaning production seem like a dated period piece.
I forgave Southern Comfort's many faults the last time I reviewed it because its characters' journeys of self-discovery and love moved me to tears—and they did again. However, upon second viewing, I was acutely aware of just how repetitive, traditional and safe the show is. The central conflict between Robert and his surrogate son Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) feels fabricated, gender is presented as binary, and some of the thornier parts of the doc, like Robert's relationship with his biological children, are omitted. It's a two-plus-hour plea for tolerance and acceptance that even your bigoted grandmother can love because, hey, they're just like us!
And yet, there's still so much beauty here. The twangy folk-bluegrass songs are played with gusto by five musicians, most of whom take on small roles. James J. Fenton's set, especially its tree festooned with memorabilia, invites you into this intimate community. And the committed six-member ensemble (including two excellent new additions, Aneesh Sheth and Donnie Cianciotto, both transgender) makes sure these characters come across as real people, not PC cutouts. While casting a cisgender woman as a transman is fraught with controversy (and indeed, prompted serious backlash), O'Toole has been with the project since its inception. It's clearly a labor of love for her and she disappears into Robert, effectively channeling the charming, petit man from the doc who emanated so much energy and light, it's hard to grasp that he's gone. Robert's budding romance with the just-starting-to-transition Lola Cola (Jeff McCarthy, breathtaking) is the heart of the story. Watching him gleefully court her, all political notions of gender and identity fall away and the show's finely tuned message translates into explosive emotions.—Raven Snook
Public Theater (Off Broadway). Book and lyrics by Dan Collins. Music by Julianne Wick Davis. Directed by Thomas Caruso. With Annette O'Toole, Jeff McCarthy, Jeffrey Kuhn. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.