Theater Review: SOUTHERN COMFORT (Pride Films and Plays at the Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 5, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Rather than dwell on the similitude of roses, Gertrude Stein might better have said love is love is love. It certainly is in one particular North Side storefront: A 2016 blue-grass musical with a heart and a half is now a warm and winning Chicago premiere from Pride Films and Plays.

Southern Comfort offers just that. Inspired by Kate Davis’s 2001 documentary about transgender friends attending the 1998 Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, this charming chronicle — book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis — salutes survivors who refuse to be cast out.

The fact that these earthy decent souls find home and happiness in rural Georgia is providential (most of the action happens about 90 miles from Atlanta in the upstate hamlet of Toccoa). It’s a perfect excuse for deep-fried country jubilation. And, if one man’s death hangs over the happenings, that doesn’t sour the joy.

The documentary focused on transgender man Robert (formerly “Barbara”) Eads and the remarkable extended family who enjoyed monthly Sunday barbecues with this prince of the country. Suffering Stage 4 ovarian cancer, untreated by physicians afraid for their careers, and rejected by parents who refuse to abandon their “daughter,” Robert’s last wish is for one final visit to the Southern Comfort Conference where, since 1991, transgender folks gather to feel more real and share stories of coping. (It has now been moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.)

In the course of a spring that comes full circle, we get to know Robert (a very charismatic North Homeward), a proud man whose unsuitable sickness “feels like a stone getting soft,” as well his beloved, equally transgender Lola (Kyra Leigh). Robert passionately wants to take his “Lola Cola” to their first and last “prom” at the Conference’s ball, held at a Sheraton hotel in Atlanta. (There, finishing with a flourish, he will bless a crowd of 500.)

Two other couples form Robert’s “chosen family.” Jackson (Lizzy Sulkowski), uncertain whether to complete his transition with a phalloplasty, finds solace in Carly (Ricki Pettinato), a helpmate dealing with her own forms of rejection. Sam (Benjamin Flores) and Melanie (Sinclair Willman) — based on Eads’ friends Tom and Debbie King — save his life when he collapses at their home in a pool of his own blood, and try to find a doctor who will treat a transgender man.

All three couples contend with the crises of creating more than just a support system. With Dixie gumption they manage to forge a family when haters only see a freak show. As the anthem “Walk the Walk” proclaims, it’s not easy to fuse grit and grace, hurt and hope. When Robert goes, Lola refuses to let go: Her anguished “Giving up the Ghost” gives closure a dignity it’s often denied.

Providing musical bridges in every sense are the instrument-playing Storytellers — Mario Aivazian, Taylor Dalton, Justin Harner, Candice Kight and Kimberly Lawson — their sweet sounds superbly shaped by music director Robert Ollis.

If the original Off-Broadway production at the Public Theater was criticized for using cisgender performers, that’s not the case with Pride Arts Center’s local premiere. All five transgender characters are played by trans actors, adding authenticity to accuracy.

Yes, there’s heartbreak to spare in Robert’s rending “I’m Going” or the six seekers’ “My Love,” a ballad to break barriers. But, affirming more than lamenting, Southern Comfort takes full musical measure of the documentary’s sympathy for the underdog. Jeremy Hollis’s lattice-work porch proves as welcoming as mint juleps under moist magnolias.

Despite a sound system that sometimes garbled both songs and speech, director JD Caudill’s labor-of-love staging takes us to, as the chorus delivers, “Places That Aren’t Even There.” Robert Eads may have passed in 1999 at the age of 53, but his miracle-making journey is far from over.

photos by Heather Mall

Southern Comfort
Pride Films and Plays
The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3:30; Wed at 7:30 (March 27 only)
ends on March 31, 2019
for tickets, call 773.857.0222 or visit Pride Films and Plays

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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