Barrington Stage Company's 'Southern Comfort': Settling down in bubba country


PITTSFIELD -- Inspired by Kate Davis' 2001 documentary film, "Southern Comfort," a well-intentioned, if dramatically lackluster new musical at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, focuses on a small group of transgendered people trying to build a.harmonious life for themselves in Toccoa, a small community in rural Georgia -- "home o' the bubba," as one of them describes the area.

At the center is Robert Eads (an amazingly transformed Annette O'Toole), a thin, wiry female-to-male transgender who is dying of ovarian cancer.

His family -- "not by blood, just by circumstance" says one of them -- consists of Jackson (a fiery, moody Jeffrey Kuhn), a female-to-male transgender for whom Robert has become a surrogate for Jackson's own father, who wants nothing to do with him; Jackson's male-to-female transgendered girlfriend, Carly (a wonderfully robust, irreverent but also compassionate Natalie Joy Johnson); female-to-male transgender Sam (a gentle Todd Cerveris) and his nontransgendered wife, Melanie (a compassionate, patient, loving Robin Skye).

Family is the operative word. It is within this familial construct that Robert and friends find sanctuary from a society in which being themselves means isolation and rejection. They gather monthly as a group for Sunday suppers. Robert uses one of those gatherings to introduce his newfound love, Lola Cola (Jeff McCarthy), who, as John, runs a heating and cooling business and, in a story line that is the show's most compelling, especially given McCarthy's poignant performance, is only just beginning his own male-to-female transition.

Robert has brought Lola to Toccoa to meet his tightly knit "Chosen family." The introduction of someone new, especially without advance notice, is greeted with a bit of suspicion and a hint of hostility, which only contributes to Lola's unease.

Indeed, when an insistent Robert presses Lola to join him at Southern Comfort, the annual cotillion in Atlanta for transgendered, Lola is even more apprehensive and reluctant.

At its heart, the ingeniously titled "Southern Comfort" is about acceptance and identity, not only within a broader social context but also within one's self; finding that comfort zone, no matter what it takes and what that means.

Jackson, for example, decides his transition will not be complete without a phalloplasty, a procedure Robert feels, passionately so, is unwarranted. It's who you are inside that matters, not what's between your legs, Robert forcefully argues.

Kuhn does a fine job of catching the roiling conflicts within Jackson and how his own needs collide with his love and respect for Robert.

O'Toole's Eads is an uneasy mixture of excess on the one hand and, on the other, the urgency of someone for whom time is running out -- a man "so full up on livin'," Jackson says of him, "that you could drown in (him)."

McCarthy handles Lola's journey with delicacy and poignancy. Unfortunately, McCarthy is betrayed by a book by Dan Collins that handles the resolution of Lola's key dilemmas casually and dismissively.

The performances throughout the remainder of the cast are evocative and engaging.

The bluegrass/country-inflected score is sung well by the cast and accompanied skillfully by the four-member onstage band, some of whom step into the action of the play as ancillary characters.

But for all the creative energy and skill that's been lavished on "Southern Comfort," for all the ideas rattling around James J. Fenton's expansive, atmospheric set, there is an acute sense of waiting for something to happen.

"Southern Comfort" takes on far more than it can handle. Its themes don't coalesce around a fixed dramatic point. The show repeats itself, marks time and, as a result, feels longer than its two-hours-plus running time

Good insightful film documentaries do not always make good insightful stage musicals.


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