Choosing Your Family @ Pride Arts

2.5 Stars out of 4

It is inherently difficult to adapt a documentary into a theatre piece: while both rely on good storytelling, theatre asks us to suspend belief and accept conventions of fiction, while documentary films purport to unearth factual truth.  And so it is this difficult circle to square with Pride Arts Chicago premiere of Southern Comfort, The Musical.  Based on the life and death of Robert Eads, a brave and generous transgendered man living and dying in rural Toccoa Georgia in the late 1990’s, the play is about the tight knit community he nurtures, that calls itself a family and gathers for potlucks once a month, and travels to Atlanta for the Southern Comfort Cotillion each year to live their dreams.  Much of the play is based on fact: Eads did live in Toccao, and died of ovarian cancer and did struggle to find treatment.  He did create a community of other trans people in a region hostile to non-binary interpretations and reinterpretations of gender. His story is worthy of being told, and as an historic challenger to the status quo, an important figure in the long march to civil rights for all people.  The worthiness of the subject does not redeem the clunkiness of the script however.   The show moves through the seasons and by the time fall comes, the script is utterly predictable and slow moving. The craftsmanship of this show is admirable: Director JD Caudill struggles mightily to create a well paced through line utilizing the levels of Jeremy Hollis’s clever country set-- all weathered wood and corrugated metal, with floral and leaf arrangements being set out and replaced to represent the passage of time and seasons. Music director Robert Ollis leads the onstage band /storyteller ensemble through lovely folksy bluegrass interludes and tight musical numbers.Choreographer Allison Petrillo creates imaginative and uplifting dance numbers in the complicated space.  But there are too many songs here, and many restate the same concept: we create families of choice, we make our own homes out of what we end up with. We live. We die. We struggle to find and keep love. Several of the singers need to take a page out of Rex Harrison’s book and talk their songs, and the sound design needs a bit of tweaking, though overall the show heartily connects the audience to the ensemble.  It is easy to bond  with the fully complex Robert that North Homeward brings to life, and one is devastated when he finally dies late in the show. My sympathies were with his girlfriend Lola (singer Kyra Leigh) who overcame her own inner conflicts passing back and forth on the binary to become a full time caregiver of a man dying of cancer. All of this cast are perfect in their roles, though some of us more vintage audience members who grew up in a CIS world may need a score card to sort out “labels” or maybe not.  Gender can be fluid or irrelevant: the point of the show is not to put labels and classifications on designations and body parts, but to bring people together to create a life that is actualizing for the people living it.  We are all trying to figure out our identity and how we fit into the world, and some of us have supportive families of origin but many of us don’t and so we have to start from scratch to build a niche for ourselves.  That is a good message for a musical to have, and Pride Arts is a safe space where we can have these conversations. Premiering this musical in Chicago is a marvelous thing.

Southern Comfort,The Musical is playing Thursdays through Sundays (and Wednesday March 27) at the Pride Arts Center, 4139 North Broadway in Chicago. For tickets and more information go to www.pridefilmsandplays.com or call 773-857-0222