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Southern Comfort

This musical about a transgender community in Georgia doesn't do full justice to its innately compelling subject.

Jeff McCarthy and Annette O'Toole
in Southern Comfort
(© Matthew Murphy)
For a musical that advocates for transgender pride, Southern Comfort, now at CAP21 under Thomas Caruso's direction, does itself little favor by its inconsistent casting.

In the work by Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis, which is inspired by Kate Davis' 2000 Sundance Grand Jury Award-winning documentary of the same name about a community of transgendered friends in rural Georgia, Annette O'Toole plays Robert (né Barbara) Eads, a trans-male who died of untreated ovarian cancer in 1999 after a score of doctors refused to treat him for fear of discomfiting their regular clientele, while Jeff McCarthy portrays Eads' late-in-life true love, "Lola Cola," who had just begun embracing her inner womanhood when she and Eads grew close.

But in casting the couple's close friends, the creators have chosen two male actors, Jeffrey Kuhn and Todd Cerveris, to play females-to-males Maxwell and Cas, respectively, and Natalie Joy Johnson as a man becoming a woman. The result is some serious confusion on the audience's part, as one has to keep reminding oneself who started out where and what kind of journey was involved.

Since these characters appear 100 percent arrived -- and look as if they came by their current incarnations at birth (as indeed the actors did) -- much of the tumult and pain of their transitions are magically erased. It also undercuts the bravery of much of these real-life rebels.

Moreover, being placed amid the two visibly "authentic" men makes O'Toole, with her underwhelming voice, look and sound like quite the odd, delicate duck, whereas the real-life Eads was convincingly macho enough to be invited to check out the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the beauties of the film is the calm and loving camaraderie amid which Eads faces his impending death. As if the drama inherent in the story weren't enough, Collins works up an overwrought eleven o'clock number ("Two Hundred Miles") in which Lola recalls their desperate search for emergency care. In addition, Collins invents an Oedipal falling out between Eads and his primary acolyte, Maxwell, so as to prompt another outpouring of vocal anguish, "I Don't Need Another Father."

The few songs in Wicks' mostly-middling, Appalachian-tinged score that truly engage us stem from character, not histrionic attempts to wring emotion. The strapping, deep-voiced McCarthy strikes a resonant chord in "Bird" as Lola bemoans the disparity between the "pretty little thing" she knows herself to be "when I see behind my eyes" and her actual, physical being, which will never come close.

As Stephanie, Cas' female-from-the-get-go wife, Robin Skye gets to deliver most of the comic material, and does so with a nice, offhanded grace. She and Cerveris share a joyous duet -- "I'm with You" -- once Stephanie summons the courage to open up to outsiders about her unusual marital status. More songs such as these, stemming from an authentic interior struggle, would help to ground this innately compelling story.


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