It must have seemed like a good idea to adapt “Southern Comfort,” the 2000 film documentary by Kate Davis, into a folk and bluegrass musical. But good ideas don’t always pan out. The book and lyrics by Dan Collins set the show in a rural Georgia outpost in 1998, where a tight circle of transgender friends gather to celebrate the sheer fact of their existence. The hokey-folky music, by Julianne Wick Davis, seems appropriate to the scene. But as a piece of theater, the show rolls over and plays dead.
The only unqualified successes in this inert production at the Public Theater are the stunning set and lighting design. James J. Fenton’s set, a pure expressionist fantasy of a wooded retreat deep in the woods, is protected by a Tree of Life, a soaring wooden structure made of multiple shadow boxes containing artifacts precious to someone and miniature scenes of (one assumes) happy moments in the life of the house. Ed McCarthy’s romantic lighting casts a soft blue glaze over the swing on the porch and the canopy of trees overhead.
This idyllic spot is the backyard of Robert Eads, a transgender man in his late 50s who hosts these chummy get-togethers. As played by Annette O’Toole, he looks like a straw-stuffed puppet, moves as if he’s wearing a tight corset and sounds as if he’s swallowed his teeth. It isn’t until late in the play — too late to serve any dramatic purpose — that we learn the specific nature of his illness and why he can’t get medical treatment for it.
The peanut-sized Robert has a hefty new girlfriend named Lola Cola (played with sweet subtlety by the very big and bulky Jeff McCarthy), whom Robert is finally ready to introduce to his friends. Highly unconvincing reservations about Lola’s worthiness fail to cut it as cause for dramatic conflict. Some nonsense about having to convince shy Lola to be Robert’s date for the annual Southern Comfort cotillion for transgender people also falls flat.
The other cooing couples in this company of friends (or “chosen family” members as they prefer to put it) are given their own stories and their own songs — and some are worth listening to. Robert’s chosen son, Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn, slumming it here), even gets a laugh with the line: “Oh, women! / Lord, they were never this way / Back when I used to be one.”
But for the most part, the talky lyrics prove to be too much of a mouthful for Julianne Wick Davis’s pared-down musical idiom — played and sung in authentic country style by David M. Lutken, Elizabeth Ward Land, and their fellow storyteller/musicians. And director Thomas Caruso seems to have let everyone more or less make it up as they go along.
The documentary could get away with presenting itself as a group portrait of a very special community making a place for itself outside society limits. But the theater is more demanding — of story, conflict, tension, suspense, character development and confrontation. The creatives seem to have made the broad thematic choice to blame society at large for throwing up obstacles to a happy and fulfilling existence for the transgender community. But for the purposes of drama, society doesn’t dare show its face in this secret place and under that protective tree of life.