AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Jane Anderson
Directed by Marilyn Langbehn
Presented by Palo Alto Players
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA/(650) 329-0891

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The desire and subsequent decision to change one's gender are fraught with emotional perils, but playwright Jane Anderson handles them with great sensitivity in "Looking for Normal," staged by Palo Alto Players.

Director Marilyn Langbehn and her cast are equal to the delicate task of developing the complexities of each character's emotional journey.

The plot focuses on Roy (Keith C. Marshall), a 45-year-old Midwesterner who has been happily married to his wife, Irma (Shannon Warrick), for 25 years. However, he has been having problems such as severe headaches. Because no physical cause has been found, he and Irma go to their pastor, Reverend Muncie (Dave Iverson), for counseling. That's when Roy says out loud for the first time that he was born in the wrong body. He should have been a woman, he says.

From there the action focuses on how each person in his immediate circle responds to his revelation. Irma is dumbfounded at first, wondering if she's somehow at fault. Their 13-year-old daughter, Patty Ann (Samantha Gorjanc), seems curious about what physical changes will occur. Some of her reaction might stem from the fact that she's a tomboy who might be questioning her sexuality.

Their 22-year-old son, Wayne (Thomas Toland), who's on the road with a rock band, is angry and disbelieving. Likewise, Roy's mother, Em (Jackie O'Keefe), is dismayed upon reading Roy's letter and decides not to share it with Roy Sr. (Jack Penkethman). He's a retired farmer who was harsh on Roy when he was growing up, but now he's declining physically and mentally.

Frank (Vic Prosak), Roy's boss at the John Deere plant and a longtime family friend, is mainly supportive of Irma. Reverend Muncie searches for answers in the Bible and on the Internet. The play's other character is Grandmother Ruth (Billie Harris), Roy's deceased paternal grandmother who left her family and went to Europe when Roy Sr. was 4 years old. Wearing a tuxedo, she appears at various times to talk frankly and happily about all of her adventures and lovers, both male and female, throughout her life.

The set design by Patrick Klein is relatively simple with the family kitchen on one side and Roy and Irma's bedroom on the other. Costumes are by Lisa Claybaugh with lighting by Selina Young and sound by George Mauro. Fight choreography is by Michael Daw.

After premiering in 2001, the play was made into a 2003 HBO film, "Normal," starring Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson.

Speaking to the Palo Alto audience after a recent performance, playwright Anderson said, "The play is not about transsexualism. It's about a marriage ... a meditation on what commitment really means."

She set the play in the Midwest because "No matter what happens, they just get back on the plow. ... People in the Midwest have the gift for normalcy." They just go on, she said.

In the case of Roy and Irma, they do go on because, in the long run, they love each other no matter what. Even though Marshall was quite hoarse at this performance, it didn't seem to affect his creation of a gentle, loving man who's pained by the reactions of those around him but who's even more pained to remain male. Warrick's Irma has perhaps the most difficult emotional arc. "How do you redefine a relationship in the face of staggering pressure, or do you just end it?" Langbehn asks in a series of questions in her director's note.

"This play is a study in soul love, or marital love," Anderson said after the performance. Warrick's Irma and Marshall's Roy shows how powerful such love can be.

"This is an extraordinary piece of theater," Langbehn concluded. It's well worth seeing.

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