The notion that we can't pick our family is dispelled, to poignant effect, in Southern Comfort, Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins' life-affirming stage adaptation of Kate Davis' 2001 documentary of the same title. Admittedly, the story of a Georgia transgender man who surrounds himself with a chosen group of family, and then succumbs to cancer, doesn't seem naturally musical. But with an engaging bluegrass score, a particularly lovely company led by Annette O'Toole and Jeff McCarthy, and wrenching honesty, this Public Theater production really sings.
Robert Eads (O'Toole) is a transgender man living Toccoa, Georgia, a place he lovingly calls "Bubba Country." Robert is a proud resident of the backwoods, with a love of pipe smoking and a black cowboy hat he rarely takes off. He has also spent the better part of his adult life trying to escape his youth, where he was born and raised as "Barbara." In a cruel twist of fate, Robert, who has only undergone top surgery, is dying of metastatic ovarian cancer after local hospitals refused to treat him.
Yet there are still some bright spots in Robert's life; namely, the Sunday night dinners with the small group of people he spiritually adopted to fill a void left by his disapproving parents. This adopted group includes Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), Robert's surrogate son who used to be "Peggy Sue," as well as Sam (Donnie Cianciotto), a trans man still scarred by the aftereffects of his surgical transformation, and his girlfriend, Melanie (Robin Skye), who has finally found happiness and safety with her partner. New to the group is Lola (McCarthy), the true love for whom Robert has been searching his entire life, who hasn't yet transitioned and still publicly lives as John.
Like the musical, the film explores the last year of Robert's life as he prepares to attend his final Southern Comfort Conference, the preeminent gathering for trans people in the United States. With Robert begging Lola to be his date, Jackson's jealousy has the potential to wreck the family Robert has spent so many years assembling.
First mounted at CAP21 in 2011 and subsequently at Barrington Stage Company in 2013, Southern Comfort, which is conceived by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso, has only deepened in terms of emotion. Davis provides a stirring, soulful musical score that blends country and Appalachian folk, with lyrics from Collins that go straight for the tear ducts.
McCarthy expertly captures the inner ache of a person trying to find comfort after living for so long in an ill-fitting body. He sells yearning ballads like "Bird" and "Giving Up the Ghost" to the rafters. With a face full of whiskers and a "don't mess with me" demeanor, O'Toole morphs so deeply into Robert that the lines between reality and performance start to blur. Under Caruso's careful direction, the pair has the kind of chemistry one would expect from an actual married couple, which makes the events of the second act so shattering.
The remaining performers, several of whom have been with Southern Comfort from its earliest production, are very much their equals. Kuhn is blazingly good as Jackson, particularly in the damning Act 1 finale, "I Don't Need Another Father." Skye radiates warmth as Melanie. Cast after a search for trans performers, new company members Cianciotto and Aneesh Sheth (as Jackson's sexually charged post-transition girlfriend, Carly) lend a depth and further resonance to their characters.
Physically, James J. Fenton has provided the musical with a gritty backwoods set that centers around a symbolic blooming tree of life. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes, combined with David Brian Brown's hair design, help transform the performers into their characters. The band (who also double as various characters) expertly plays orchestrations by Davis and members David M. Lutken and Joel Waggoner.
Southern Comfort does have a tendency to feel like a simplified and somewhat preachy primer on trans issues — at times seeming at war with the deeply felt emotional quality of the performances. And the casting of only two trans actors still isn't enough. However, the piece treats it subjects with a great deal of respect and humanity. And with issues of trans identity finally coming to the fore in mainstream media, Southern Comfort is a beautiful entry into an important conversation.