Not every scene in “A Raisin in the Sun” is about being black in 1950s Chicago. Not every scene in “The Boys in the Band” is about being gay in 1960s Manhattan. Every scene in “Southern Comfort” is about being transgender in the contemporary Deep South.
The new musical, which opened Sunday at the Public Theater, is based on Kate Davis’ 2001 documentary about Robert Eads, a transgender man who was denied treatment for his ovarian cancer, and died.
Just like “Raisin” and “Boys,” “Southern Comfort” is a groundbreaking work in the theater. Its relentless focus, however, might prevent it from being an enduring one. Five of the six characters presented here are transgender, and they are all victims.
The bigoted townspeople, doctors, co-workers, and family members are played by members of a four-piece band, and they set up most of the conflict in Dan Collins’ book.
Robert (Annette O’Toole) insists that his mother and father not call him Barbara. Sam (Donnie Cianciotto) has to shave his beard before visiting his family. Lola (Jeff McCarthy) worries when a patrolman stops her car and fears she will be discovered. And there are the medical workers who deny Robert treatment for his cancer. All in all, that’s a lot of victimhood for one night in the theater.
Collins’ book attempts to get some drama going among the principal characters. The major internecine strife in this family of transgender people emerges when Robert and Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) argue about undergoing sex reassignment surgery. Jackson wants it; Robert feels that gender isn’t something between your legs. The harsh irony is that the surgery would have prevented Robert from getting ovarian cancer.
Needless to say, “Southern Comfort” is not your typical musical. But it is an overly earnest one. The songs by Collins and Julianne Wick Davis aren’t as numbingly didactic as Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage aux Folles,” but a few anthems come close, and none of the music is very memorable.
What does impress is that the victims on stage are all survivors, and that includes the one who’s dying. Many of them also are involved in romantic relationships that emerge as heartfelt and real. To its credit, “Southern Comfort” sets in motion more gender arrangements than even Shakespeare was able to cram into “As You Like It.”
Under Thomas Caruso’s direction, Annette O’Toole’s defiant man and Jeff McCarthy’s emerging woman make an ideal couple. And as the musical’s only principal cisgender character, Robin Skye’s Melanie makes us believe she has found the South’s last real man in Donnie Cianciotto’s Sam.