AISLE SAY Berkshires



Book & Lyrics by Dan Collins
Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Starring Annette O’Toole and Jeff McCarthy

Barrington Stage/St. Germain Stage July 19 – August 10

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


Based on Kate Davis’s 2001 documentary of the same title, “Southern Comfort” is a new musical (in a world premiere production at Barrington Stage’s St. Germain Stage Theatre) that follows the last year in the life of Robert Eads, a female-to-male transsexual. Set mainly in rural Toccoa, Georgia, the story includes other members of Eads’ “chosen family”, a community of men and women, most of them transsexual and transgender, who offer and accept emotional support as they struggle to gain self-respect and dignity in a world that views them as merely marginal.


Performed on a set (design by James J. Fenton) that takes full advantage of the intimate St. Germain Stage, the story is further enhanced by the four musicians who double as various characters throughout. The full ensemble of ten is cohesive, powerfully committed to the material and the themes contained therein, and distinctive in the characters that they portray. The material itself is more problematic.


Julianne Wick Davis has created an eclectic, country-folk inflected score of twenty-five songs and it’s well served by all the performers. But there is a sameness of tone and the lyrics, by Dan Collins, who also wrote the book, underline the repetitive themes of selfhood and a determination to be true to one’s nature and spirit. These ideas are honest and certainly essential to the work, but the emotional and intellectual range narrows as the evening progresses. Long before the final scene, the writers’ purpose becomes too much of a soapbox and any opportunity to develop the characters into three-dimensional people is abandoned in favour of platitudes that, in their repetition, are perilously close to bumper sticker philosophy.


Background among the six principals is dispensed with and so the viewer never gets to understand how these people have come together. We are told about family conflicts, and we do see brief glimpses of some interactions, but we’re never taken deep enough to gain a fundamental knowledge of a culture that, for most of the audience, is foreign. As a result, the sentiments expressed both in song and dialogue could probably be applied to most alternative communities. The single exception is a scene late in the first act when Robert and Jackson argue the politics of sex reassignment surgery. It’s the truest scene in the play because it’s the only time that characters speak specifically and don’t get done in by generalized sentiments. Its potency is further heightened because the argument is contained within dialogue and wisely resists moving into song.


The production, directed by Thomas Caruso with musical direction by Emily Otto, is clean and makes excellent use of a rather inflexible space. The actors endow the work with passion and energy. Annette O’Toole, as Robert, drives the work forward. She is a powerhouse in a compact frame. Jeff McCarthy, playing opposite as Lola, a man-to-woman transsexual, is a bold casting choice. McCarthy is a large presence made the more so when playing with the diminutive O’Toole. His Lola is unmistakably male and as far from drag queen heaven as one can imagine. And this adds humanity where kitsch might so easily have been the case. Jeffrey Kuhn, as the young man contemplating surgery, imbues his performance with honest humour that brings his character into a welcome reality.


Second acts in all theatre writing are a test. Has the first act set up enough conflict to sustain and merit a second half? Does the intermission between the acts help or hinder what follows? With “Southern Comfort”, the second act doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t already been and, worse, it succumbs to a maudlin sentimentality that has no dramatic heft. It’s sad when anyone dies, of course, but we all know that. And we can also agree that people choosing to attend a play like “Southern Comfort” will not need to be convinced that empathy and acceptance are qualities to admire and to embrace.


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