On the surface, the new musical Southern Comfort has all the trappings of a conventional family drama. Robert Eads is the gentle patriarch of a rural Georgian family. Watch as he eventually comes to blows with his bullish son Jackson when the elder’s girlfriend, Lola Cola, comes to visit. And from the sidelines, all Robert’s other son Sam can do is watch with his wife, Melanie, as their family falls apart.
But this is no living room drama. The plot of Southern Comfort, currently at the Public Theater, derives from Kate Davis’s 2001 documentary of the same name, which chronicled the last year of Eads’s life alongside his “chosen family” of transgender folk cast out by their families and communities. Robert was a transgender man who, by cruel irony, died of ovarian cancer after being refused medical care by over a dozen doctors because he was trans.
The enormous, Joseph Cornell-inspired tree at center stage, designed by James J. Fenton, symbolizes the story’s universal themes of family, friendship, and acceptance. The ramshackle tree’s branches are filled with photographs and mementos that remind us that this musical is about the history and intimate lives of its characters rather than a heated, political dissection of transgender identity. By tiptoeing around the complex politics of marginalization, Southern Comfort is a pleasure to watch but not necessarily a pleasure to critically analyze. Yes, Southern Comfort is charming — perhaps too charming.
Theater demands conflict, tension, and suspense to drive plot, but Southern Comfort’s director, Thomas Caruso, mostly gives us complacency. Life for our cheery group of outsiders seems to be about endurance and insulation. Virtually every interaction with the outside world is defined by danger. Without much to say on the systematic discrimination of transgender people, Southern Comfort seems content to function as escapism. It’s entertaining, yes, but lacks the full impact it could have had.
The tension that exists is generated by a family feud. By the time we meet Robert (Annette O’Toole), he has already come to terms with his illness. The main conflict revolves around an argument over the distinction between gender and sex. In one scene, Robert excoriates Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn) for wanting phalloplasty surgery. “We always agreed that a man or woman was about what’s in your heart and your head,” says Robert, “not between your legs.” The two trans men have a falling out that leaves Robert’s chosen family splintered at the end of the first act. What’s left to drive the plodding second act is a trip to Southern Comfort, an annual conference for the transgender community, where everyone is still moping around about Jackson’s absence.
Set to music by Julianne Wick Davis, Robert’s story is told with an appropriate folk-bluegrass twang, which is hindered only by Dan Collins’s clunky lyrics. The music successfully conveys the cognitive dissonance that a Southern queer person must feel. When immersed in the show, it is easy to forget just how radically subversive it is to hear trans people singing country music — a genre often stereotyped as misogynistic and conservative. Often, Southern Comfort’s score relies on the intimacy of its five-person band to provide nuance to the musical’s world. Four of these band members also function as storytellers, jumping into songs with harmonies that emphasize the narrative’s many gender identity conflicts. As Lola (stage veteran Jeff McCarthy) laments her inability to believably pass as a woman in the showstopping number “Birds,” the song becomes too emotionally painful to sing. One of the female band members steps in to harmonize with Lola, both as a support mechanism and an embodiment of the trans woman’s inner self. As Lola becomes more comfortable in her own body, she no longer needs the music to affirm her womanhood.
At the opposite end of the confidence spectrum, Carly (the standout Aneesh Sheth) exudes certainty and sexiness as a transgender woman. Although she is introduced as Jackson’s love interest, she soon becomes part of the family. The two sing a duet titled “Places That Aren’t Even There,” which correlates the horniness of testosterone injections with Jackson’s ever-growing desire to get a phalloplasty. As a real transgender person, Sheth lends a degree of authenticity to her performance that soars above her cisgender cast mates. (Which is not to say anyone in the cast is lacking in talent; every cast member is unbelievably talented.) When Carly shares “trade secrets” with Lola about how to more believably pass as a trans woman, you really get the sense that she is mothering Lola into womanhood.
Southern Comfort is not a perfect show, but it’s an important one to see. Seldom, if ever, do rural queer people get a voice in the arts. The show’s emphasis on gender binaries and appearance may sound constricting at times, but it’s a real concern for these characters living in a conservative area. Instead of fashioning a narrative of misery, Southern Comfort is a story about adaptation and survival, endurance and renewal.