The Public Theater continues its tradition of presenting groundbreaking theater in an accessible setting with the folk-bluegrass musical Southern Comfort, directed by Thomas Caruso. Based on the 2001 film by Kate Davis, Southern Comfort tells the story of a charismatic, middle-aged transgender man in rural Georgia named Robert Eads (Annette O’Toole) who, despite having terminal cancer, has decided to live life to the fullest, including falling in love with a closeted trans woman, Lola Cola (Jeff McCarthy), introducing Lola to his chosen family of “freaks,” and preparing to attend a conference in Atlanta called Southern Comfort, a sort of convention/prom for trans people.
Despite the timely and often controversial subject matter, Southern Comfort is just as much a story dealing with issues of love and family as the politics of being born into the wrong body. Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), born Peggy Sue, is like a son to Robert with all the ups and downs that come with that kind of close-knit relationship. Their best friends are Melanie (Robin Skye), the only cisgender character, and her partner, Sam (Donnie Cianciotto).
The politics come up when Jackson decides to undergo phalloplasty to become what he believes will complete him as a man. Robert is staunchly against this, which leads to a nasty argument in which the two stop speaking. In reality, Jackson is angry that Robert is dying and doesn’t seem to be angry about it when really Robert has just decided not to let it get him down because his time is so short. The two also clash over the way Robert has been treated at local hospitals that refuse to treat him because he is transgender.
The music of Southern Comfort (Julianne Wick Davis; book and lyrics by Dan Collins) is a mixture of bluegrass and folk, which places the show firmly into a southern context. The band members (David M. Lutken, Lizzie Hagstedt, Joel Waggoner, Elizabeth Ward Land) play and sing onstage, as well as rotate as minor characters.
Out of a mostly forgettable score, one song stands out: the pivotal “Barbara,” the name Robert was given by his parents, which he sings after he tries to tell them about his cancer. He reneges when they show their ignorance and refuse to call him Robert, and they never find out he’s dying. Ironically, the cancer is in Robert’s ovaries and the song is a heartbreaking reminder that as much as you want to get away from the person you were, it can always come back to kill you in the end. In an interesting parallel, Jackson is elated when his dad calls him Jack after receiving a letter from his girlfriend Carly (Aneesh Sheth), even though the main point of the call was to tell Jackson he doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.
Southern Comfort is cleverly grounded by a large tree onstage decorated with portraits and lights (scenic design by James J. Fenton). This tree symbolizes Robert’s attempt to put down roots and build the kind of family he never had, the kind that accepts you as you are. The importance of his home and land and the source of pride it gives him is a constant refrain throughout the show. When you have something so important taken away from you, your identity, it becomes essential to take it back and turn it into something meaningful.
The creators of the show (Robert Dusold and Thomas Caruso) are quite sensitive to the issues surrounding being transgender. They recognize that the sweetness of life is the freedom to be who you really are and to choose a community that allows you to express that. That freedom is so powerful and probably saves a whole lot of lives. Hopefully, Southern Comfort will bring a lot of comfort to transgender audiences.