Also see Fred's review of Same Time, Next Year
Annette O'Toole's warmth, understanding of character, and persuasive depiction of Robert Eads is evident from the moment she appears on this stage, one which situates the actors practically in first row house seats. Terminally ill with cancer but determined to live out her final year with full feeling, she is involved with Lola Cola (Jeff McCarthy), transgendered from male to female. She is large and not particularly easy with her own being.
Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), attracted to Carly (Natalie Joy Johnson), wants to have surgery to be more of a man. Sam (Todd Cerveris) is partnered with the very basic Melanie (Robin Skye). Jackson and Sam have made the transition from women to men.
Pivotal musicians who are also storytellers include David Lutken (guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and harmonica), Lizzie Hagstedt (bass), Joel Waggoner (violin), and Elizabeth Ward Land (percussion). All sing well and all sing, at times, as they play the instruments.
This is a stirring, touching, thematically rich musical which finds family as its important/intriguing focus. The song "Chosen Family," performed early on and then later, says it all. All of the individuals get together every so often. Robert (whose parents call him Barbara) wants to take Lola with him to attend the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta where transgendered people will gather. Lola is having significant difficulty with her current self.
So, too, this play is all about "My Love," another of the numbers which is presented twice by vocalists and once on instruments. Robert truly loves Lola and he is devoted.
While Robert's prognosis is difficult and his fate is determined, this is not a heavily depressing play. On the contrary, Southern Comfort is soulful and sensitive. The moments are sometimes comic, sometimes tenderand always expressive.
O'Toole, nearly gaunt for this role, is a revelation. Wearing a wispy goatee and sideburns, her hair fairly short, and outfitted, by Patricia E. Doherty, in country jeans, a flannel shirt and such, she is an actor transformed. I, for one, recall her as the attractive tutor for Robby Benson in the 1977 film One on One. Others might have seen her on television's "Smallville." Now, though, beneath her cowboy hat, she embodies the flinty, quite-smart Robert, the appealing catalytic character and lead performer. He says, during the first act, "C'mon now, y'all know gender's got nothin' more to do with that kind o' stuff than it has to do with what's between your legs. The truth is inside." Truth, here, is essential.
McCarthy, whom BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd has featured in a number of shows, excels with a most difficult portrayal. He is tall and his shoulders are broad. During one sequence, Lola is portrayed as her former persona, John. This occurs as Lola discards a wig and has a business interaction.
One gets the sense that this is an isolated Toccoa, Georgia, community. The overarching questions: Would outside society, 15 years ago, accept them? If not, when?
Boyd, again, brings new, challenging, even daring work to this small stage. This time, as adeptly designed by James J. Fenton, the set includes worn lattice and fencing, a utilized wooden swing, rough outdoor table and chair, tools, and old tire and so forth.
Southern Comfort maximizes many art forms and the result is singular, enduring theater. Director Caruso brings together this production; Artistic Producer of the Musical Theatre Lab, William Finn, deserves a nod, too. The musical continues through August 10th on the St. Germain Stage, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as part of Barrington Stage Company's summer season. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.
- Fred Sokol