Southern Comfort, a touching and uniquely sensitive new musical by Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis inspired by a 2001 documentary of the same name, dispels the long-held belief that you can't pick your family. Now at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage after a 2011 workshop run at New York's CAP 21, this soulful work follows a makeshift family of five — none of whom are blood-related — as they run out the clock on the final year of the patriarch's life.
That patriarch is Robert Eads (Annette O'Toole), a feisty good-old-boy from the backwoods of Georgia with a love of pipe tobacco, Sunday afternoon get-togethers, and his small patch of land in "Bubba Country." In one of nature's cruelest games, Robert, born Barbara, is dying of metastasized ovarian cancer after multiple doctors, fearing his status as a trans man would frighten their other patients, turned him away from treatment.
Yet the aviator-wearing, bewhiskered Robert, described as "so full up on livin' that you could drown in 'em," is not down for the count. He's finally found true love in the form of Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a tall, nervous woman who, professionally, still goes by John (her birth identity). Their romance forms the heart of the piece, which comes to a climax at the annual Southern Comfort Conference, a major transgender meeting in Atlanta that Robert is desperate to attend one last time, and with Lola.
Like the musicals of yore, Southern Comfort, with book and lyrics by Collins and music by Davis, only allows the characters to sing when their emotions are high enough that talking is no longer effective. If the score — a mix of country, folk, rock, and bluegrass — isn't exactly hummable, that doesn't mean it's not memorable. It'll be hard to forget a yearning ballad like "Bird," in which Lola confesses how uncomfortable she is in her own skin, or "Barbara," where Robert, after a visit from his disapproving parents, reflects on his former life, one that no longer exists.
While certain ethical dilemmas arise in casting non-trans actors in trans roles, the assembled company, almost all of whom appeared in the CAP 21 production, burrow deeply into the souls of their characters and, with the help of director Thomas Caruso, craft performances that are painfully real. This not only goes for O'Toole and McCarthy, who are delivering shattering career-bests, but the ensemble of five: Jeffrey Kuhn as the hot-headed Jackson who views Robert as a father-figure; Todd Cerveris, heartbreaking as the gentle Sam; Robin Skye as Melanie, Sam's non-trans girlfriend who views him as the best man she's ever known; and Natalie Joy Johnson as Carly, Jackson's naughty, completely post-operative new girlfriend. The reliable David Lutken, Lizzie Hagstedt, Joel Waggoner, and Elizabeth Ward Land play a variety of roles and instruments as "The Storytellers."
Perhaps most refreshing about Southern Comfort, a milieu-capturing production with an earthy set by James J. Fenton, realistic costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and particularly impressive wig design by David Brian Brown, is that it's written and performed without judgment. In a genre where gay and trans characters are still comic relief or written as "others" in need of rescuing, it is incredibly heartening to see a piece where their status as "others" is celebrated. The group at the heart of this show might not be of blood relation, but they're one of the most loving families ever depicted on stage.