SOUTHERN COMFORT is a chamber musical based on the 2001 documentary about an intentional family of transgendered people living in rural Georgia. Spurned by their biological families and lacking any institutional support (benighted Georgia still has no legal protections for lgbt folks and is working hard to make things even worse). The central character is Robert Eads (Annette O'Toole in an amazing performance). Eads has never had the full surgical conversion--"just enough to pass," as he puts it. He doesn't believe that it is wise to give over so much power to doctors. It is a tragic irony that he is dying from ovarian cancer, more tragic that he can't find a hospital to treat him because of his gender identity. He fights with his best friend Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) who wants to complete his conversion. Robert is in love with John/Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a man who is just beginning to move toward changing his gender. Jackson is also jealous of losing his best friend to Lola. Sam (Donnie Cianciotto), Carly (Aneesh Sheth) and Melanie (Robin Skye) complete the group. The monthly Sundays these folks spend together give them a refuge form the hostility they face elsewhere. Only Cianciotto and Sheth are really transgendered performers, which has led to some controversy about the casting. One could also quibble about the fact that visually the show presents us with three male-female romantic couples. There's a lot that is conventional about SOUTHERN COMFORT despite its subject matter.
The show is simply, effectively staged. The musicians (a small band--piano, strings, percussion) take on the supporting roles. Julianne Wick Davis's music is pleasant, but forgettable. James J. Fenton has designed an attractive, rural looking unit set.
Ultimately, this is what Stephen Sondheim would call a "why" musical. Why turn this powerful film into a musical? It made me want to go back and look at the film again.
SOUTHERN COMFORT. Public Theatre. February 26, 2015.