‘Southern Comfort’ Gives Touching Portrait of a Small Transgender Community

Carol Rosegg

The lives of a small group of transgender people living in rural Georgia come to the stage in “Southern Comfort,” the touching new bluegrass and folk musical directed by Thomas Caruso, playing through March 27 at The Public Theater.

Based on Kate Davis’s 2001 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary of the same name, “Southern Comfort” follows the confident transgender man Robert Eads (Annette O’Toole) in the final year of his life, and the “chosen family” of transgender friends and supporters he’s built around him.

The title takes its name from an annual convention for the transgender community held each year in Atlanta. It’s comfort in the South these characters all seek, and outside of the convention, all yearn for tolerance and acceptance from their surrounding community.

Female-to-male transgender man Sam (Donnie Cianciotto) is in a loving, long relationship with girlfriend Melanie (“Robin Skye”) that she hides from her coworkers. Robert’s closeted girlfriend Lola (Jeff McCarthy) is scared what his clients will think if he makes the first medical steps toward male-to-female transition.

Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn), who was born Peggy Sue, considers the most divisive topic of the group: gender reassignment surgery, or phalloplasty. Robert’s against it (“It goes and reduces gender back to what’s between the legs”), though surgery could have prevented Robert from the ovarian cancer that will eventually kill him.

All of our characters have broken relationships with their parents. Sam has to shave his beard when visiting, and Robert’s parents refuse to call him anything but his birth name, Barbara.

“Southern Comfort” brings together a mix of transgender and non-transgender actors and musicians to tell this story -- all incredibly honest in their performances. The inclusion of two transgender actors gives the show weight and authenticity it may not have had without.

The conflict between Robert and Jackson put the outstanding O’Toole (TV’s “Smallville”) and energetic Kuhn (“The 39 Steps”) at odds, and you’ll have a hard time rooting against either. I could have a watched a whole play with just these two captivating, committed actors sparring on stage.

McCarthy sticks out the most at first, painting a Lola who is clearly not yet comfortable in her own transition. But McCarthy draws a clear arc, breaking down in two of the show’s most touching songs, “Bird” and “Giving Up the Ghost.”

The infectious, gentle and earnest bluegrass and folk score comes from Julianne Wick Davis and lyricist Dan Collins, who also wrote the book. A talented four-piece band of storytellers, onstage throughout, carry us through the tale, popping into the action now and then to play small roles.

I wish “Southern Comfort” gave us more moments where our characters embraced the positives of their transitions, and of having one another for support. But I suppose if we’re to learn one thing, it’s that it takes remarkable stamina, along with a decisive mindset and good friendships, to navigate waters as turbulent as these.

“Southern Comfort” through March 27 at The Public’s Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Tickets: $20-$65. Call 212-967-7555.

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