Credit: Carol Rosegg

The annual Southern Comfort Conference — held in Atlanta for its first 20-odd years, lately moved to Fort Lauderdale — is a major transgender gathering. It is, by all accounts, a wonderful, welcoming event, a fun and freewheeling time in a safe and supportive community. For a community that is often marginalized, often threatened, sometimes in fear, it must be a near-miraculous few days.

The new musical Southern Comfort, which opened Sunday at the Public Theater, shares all of those good intentions. What it lacks is any of that joy or celebration. It is important to see transgender people as people, to see their lives and struggles depicted in art. But what’s on stage here is admirable, worthy, and almost painfully dull.

Southern Comfort is based the 2001 documentary of the same name. The film, by Kate Davis, examines a crew of transgender friends in rural Georgia — “bubbaland,” as one character calls it. The center of the group is Robert Eads, a female-to-male transgender person who is dying, tragically and ironically, from ovarian cancer. The documentary follows Robert as, horribly, more than two dozen doctors refuse to treat him; by the time he finds one, it’s too late. His goal is to make it to Southern Comfort one more time, with his girlfriend, Lola. He does, he gives a heartbreaking speech there, and dies not long thereafter.

The musical version features a book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis, his songwriting partner. It’s directed by Thomas Caruso, who shares a “conceived for the stage” credit with Robert DuSold. It has been in development for more than a decade, with previous productions at CAP 21 in New York and the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. It is possible, in a world of Transparent and The Danish Girl, of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, that the culture simply has bypassed Southern Comfort while the musical was busy gestating.

At the Public, the play is set in what appears to be a woodsy Southern backyard, with a porch swing upstage, a tree near its center, and rusted laterns strung overhead. It’s Robert’s yard, a charming slice of Americana, designed by James J. Fenton. (In the documentary, you see that he lives in a trailer.) The early moments and songs are exposition: Introducing Robert and his friends, describing their dedication to their backwoods home, spearking reverently of making it to what Robert calls SoCo. It’s sweet, saccharinely so. There is a song, and a lot of discussion, about Robert’s “chosen family,” which is a lovely and important idea but not, as it is treated here, a revelatory one, or one unique to Robert or this play.

At base, this is a memory play, as Robert’s friends — who include, in addition to Lola, Jackson and Sam, Jackson’s girlfriend, Carly, and Sam’s wife, Melanie — recall his life and his last year. As we get further into the show, there are some more interesting moments, including Robert’s late visit to his parents, who once again reject him, and a brief number that ineffectively tells the story of his humiliation at the hands of uncaring doctors.

But mostly the focus stays solidly superficial, with a series of inspirational but undifferentiated bluegrass songs. The best numbers are by the talented on-stage band, which also serves as a Greek chorus and occasional supporting players. The two transgender performers in the cast — Aneesh Sheth, as Jackson’s strong and caring girlfriend, and Donnie Cianciotto, as the quiet, sweet Sam — are excellent. Jeff McCarthy, as Lola, sings beautifully. Annette O’Toole, the woman playing Robert, is a weak link. Robert, as portrayed here, is a difficult, controlling, not especially likable character; O’Toole, with a wispy drawl and hunched posture, gives him neither the gravitas nor charisma to make his character credible.

There is something inspiring, yes, in seeing this story told on a major New York stage. But it’s a shame that it’s told so uncompellingly. Robert and his friends are an extraordinary group of people. Southern Comfort manages to render them banal. C

Southern Comfort
  • Movie
  • 90 minutes