The musical covers one year in the life of Robert Eads, born Barbara, who has created a transgendered “chosen family” around him who meet once a month for a Sunday barbeque in his backyard. This includes Jackson, born Peggy Sue, who he considers his surrogate “son,” and Melanie, a biological woman, as well as her transgendered partner Sam, (born Debbie), the first gentle man she has met since a bad marriage. On the particular Sunday that the story begins, Robert has invited his girlfriend of six months, Lola Cola, to join them for the first time. However, all is not well in Eden. Robert has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and only has a short time to live, and Lola who lives as John during the work week is having problems with living as a woman and refuses to attend the Atlanta Southern Comfort conference, “the cotillion of the transgender community,” with Robert. When the promiscuous Jackson brings his new girlfriend Carly and seriously considers getting phalloplasty, a breach breaks out between “father” and “son,” since Robert has never believed that gender is what you have between your legs.
The characters cover a variety of situations. Both Robert and Sam have been rejected by their parents. Sam is suffering from the scars of his reassignment surgery, while the 60ish Robert has become the patriarch of his chosen family, while coping with a debilitating illness. Lola lives as a man in his professional life from Monday to Friday, and then as a woman on weekends. Jackson is conflicted about his relationship with Robert which appears to be changing with Lola entering into the equation, and he also wants to finally settle down. His girlfriend Carly, a male to female transgendered woman, is a very feminine woman who has low self-esteem issues. And Robert is coping with the fourth stage of a terminal illness which his small-town doctors have refused to treat in the local hospital.
The songs which are orchestrated with guitar, bass, violin, mandolin and piano tend to sound the same with their usual ballad stanzas and similar instrumentation. The songs don’t actually forward the story though the angry, impassioned songs, Lola’s “Bird,” Jackson’s “I Don’t Need Another Father” and Melanie’s “I’m With You,” do pack a wallop. Problematic still is that the lyrics are rather tame, reaching for familiar metaphors and bland anecdotes rather than naked emotions. On the plus side, the seasons are cleverly set up by a series of four songs which mark their coming for this story which covers one year in the lives of the characters.
The cast is uniformly fine though using only two actual transgendered actors among the five transgendered characters may have been a mistake. In any case, it is often difficult to remember who is who and who was who. Most memorable is Annette O’Toole as Robert who is so convincing that you will have to look in the program at intermission to find who she plays. Sporting a mustache, goatee and a large brimmed cowboy hat, she is every inch the indomitable spirit who has created a chosen family, acted as a folk philosopher, and been a teacher by his very example. As his love interest Lola, Jeff McCarthy, one of the few in the cast known for his performances in major musicals, is very convincing as the ambivalent John who is afraid to be who he wants to be. However, the six foot two actor and the diminutive O’Toole visually make a strange couple.
Jeffrey Kuhn gives a strong performance as the conflicted Jackson who desperately wants Robert’s approval but has to go off on his own path. As his girlfriend, Aneesh Sheth is a vivacious Carly. Robin Skye and Donnie Cianciotto are extremely sensitive as Melanie and Sam, a couple who have found all they need in each other after years of heart-break. David M. Lutken, Lizzie Hagstedt, Joel Waggoner and Elizabeth Ward Land, playing both the band and the Storytellers who double as other characters, give able support both musically and dramatically. Additionally Morgan Morse is at the piano. Director Caruso keeps the pace brisk.
The show is dominated by James J. Fenton’s setting which turns the stage of the Anspacher Theater into a Georgia backyard which seems to embrace the audience. From the Tree of Life with its shadow boxes (which disguises one of the space’s intrusive pillars), to the various levels of Robert’s wooden porch with its swing and fencing, the theater seems to have been transplanted to the rural South. Ed McCarthy’s colorful lighting plot helps appreciably to reflect the seasons, letting us know that time is passing. The costumes by Patricia E. Doherty go a long way to defining the very different characters.
Southern Comfort is an ambitious and admirable attempt to depict a community that till now has been left off of our stages. Though the material at times seems tamer that the content would warrant, it is ultimately a very moving musical. It also is a showcase for Annette O’Toole to give one of the finest performances of the season.
Southern Comfort (through March 27, 2016)
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission