“Southern Comfort,” the musical being given its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., is a tender, story about love, courage and most of all family. It’s a lovely show with excellent music and a story that will make you feel good as it breaks your heart.
Like most memorable theater events, the work uses unlikely material to tell its story. Five of the six characters are transgender individuals and the sixth is married to a transgendered man.
You will rarely meet a group of people who are so easy to like and admire.
“Southern Comfort” is based on the 2001 award-winning documentary by Kate Davis that centers on the last year of Robert Eads life. Robert was born a woman and at 35 became a man. He lived in rural Toccoa, Georgia and was masculine-appearing enough to be invited to join the Ku Klux Kan. He developed ovarian cancer and was denied treatment by dozens of doctors who feared having him as a patient would endanger their practice.
Though Robert is still the central figure in the musical, the creators open up the show to tell the story of three couples.
They are the same but different. Robert and Lola meet and fall in love though both know he is dying. Jackson and Carly are attracted to each other but Jackson feels an inadequate lover because he has not completed the final physical transformation which he believes is needed to be a complete male. Melanie was born a female and is married to Sam a transgendered male.
The three couples know if their secrets were made public they would be hated for who they are. They live marginalized, isolated lives filled with fear. Making it worse, all have to struggle with accepting themselves.
There is no struggle accepting each other. They meet one Sunday a month for comfort and support and once a year they go to Southern Comfort an annual transgender conference. They are happy occasions that add buoyancy to the show.
Indeed, there is little self-pity and no politicking in the work. This is a story about love, family and support. The problems the couples share are unique to the subculture, but though their personal issues are different, their humanity is universal.
The performances are sensitive and controlled. Each person exists as an individual but it is the loving relationships of the couples that give the musical its heartbeat.
Annette O’Toole gives a sensitive and courageous portrayal as Robert, a man who is the leader of the group. She finds his tenderness, wisdom and is not afraid to show his stubbornness as a flaw. It is easy to understand why he was loved by so many people. Jeff McCarthy is also good in finding the awkwardness of the large, bulky Lola who is new to the group and to the transgendered community as a whole.
However, their love and affection is the most difficult to accept. One reason is the lack of emotional chemistry between the two which make them physically awkward when together. Though McCarthy’s eulogy-like moment with Robert’s parents is heartbreaking, it comes late in the show. The couple could use a song earlier on to illustrate their commitment to each other.
This is, overall, a nearly complete show as is. Even though a song or two that covers the same ground could be cut to improve the pace of the show there is no weak number. Indeed the bluegrass/folk style of the music is a pleasure to hear and the lyrics are wise and revealing. A couple of the songs – like “Winter” - are stand-alone beautiful.
As an added bonus the back-up musicians who occasionally become characters in the play are sensational. And, it’s all played on one the best sets ever seen (designed by James J. Felton) at the small, intimate St. Germain Stage.
“Southern Comfort” is a sensitive, wise and caring musical about people you will like and care about. It should be experienced.
“Southern Comfort” at Barrington Stage Company, 36 Linden Street,, Pittsfield, Mass. Through August 10. Performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ticket prices start at $40 and are priced by demand. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org
Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.
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