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‘Southern Comfort’ puts transgender world center stage

Annette O’Toole stars as Robert Eads, the cowboy-hat-wearing female-to-male transgender character at the center of Barrington Stage Company’s “Southern Comfort.”
Annette O’Toole stars as Robert Eads, the cowboy-hat-wearing female-to-male transgender character at the center of Barrington Stage Company’s “Southern Comfort.”(Jennifer S. Altman for The Boston Globe)

NEW YORK — When his new musical, “Southern Comfort,” about a group of transgender friends living in rural Georgia, was first workshopped in front of an audience at a small theater in Manhattan in 2011, the show’s creative producer Robert DuSold got a glimpse of what the outsider characters in his show struggle with every day. As the man who co-conceived the show, he felt sick to his stomach all day before the first performance — and it wasn’t just butterflies.

“I really didn’t know if people would laugh at it,” he says of the musical about a pipe-smoking, pickup-driving transgender man living in a trailer in the conservative South and the tight-knit circle of trans friends he calls his family.

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Not only was DuSold unsure if the story would elicit unintended chuckles, but he worried it would come across as a freak show or pity party — a reason for the audience to gawk at these unusual figures or sentimentalize them as one-dimensionally heroic.

“Ultimately it had to boil down to a human story. And we couldn’t make the show about the Big Bad World out there and those poor pitiful transgender people,” DuSold says during a recent interview after a run-through of the show at New York University. “We also didn’t want to put the characters on a pedestal and make everyone out to be angels. So we really purposely told their stories warts and all.”

Inspired by the 2001 documentary by Kate Davis, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “Southern Comfort” is getting its official world premiere production at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield beginning this weekend. The show stars “Smallville” and “Superman III” veteran Annette O’Toole as Robert Eads, the bearded, cowboy-hat-wearing female-to-male transgender at the center of the story.

When DuSold first saw the film, he was transfixed by the charismatic Eads, who forever seemed to have a beatific smile on his face. But he was unaware of the revelation to come.

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“I saw this guy sitting in a rocking chair with a pipe in his mouth. He’s cleaning a gun. But as he’s talking about himself, you suddenly realize he’s transgender,” he says. “That was a jaw-dropping moment. The way that he was able to dramatically transform himself was so fascinating to me.”

While Robert takes testosterone and had top surgery, he remains biologically a woman. However, the last vestige of his female self is slowly killing him. Robert is dying from ovarian cancer and it’s spread to his cervix and uterus.

“He’s such a compelling character. And there’s something almost Shakespearean about the struggle he’s going through as a man with ovarian cancer. It’s incredibly theatrical,” says the musical’s lyricist and book writer, Dan Collins, who wrote the folk and bluegrass-infused score with the composer Julianne Wick Davis.

As the patriarchal figure of the group, the 50-something Robert grapples with his health and a strained relationship with his conservative parents, who insist on calling him by his birth name, Barbara. Yet Robert exudes a tranquillity, and his sense of humor remains intact.

“He kind of embodies the best of both sexes — that nurturing, sweet, loving quality that we associate with women and then this more masculine and protective side,” says O’Toole.

A slew of doctors refuse to treat Robert, claiming their businesses will suffer if the other patients find out. Meanwhile, he finds salvation in the love of Lola Cola (Jeff McCarthy), a towering male-to-female transgender who hasn’t started medically transitioning and still struggles to feel comfortable in public as a woman.

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The show grapples with issues of prejudice and discrimination, the struggle for self-acceptance and the myriad medical dilemmas that transgender people must navigate. Yet the creators insist it’s a story about family.

“How can an everyday person on the street relate to the transgender community?,” says director Thomas Caruso, a native of Weston. “So we settled on the idea of the ‘Chosen Family,’ as Robert calls it — that sometimes the family that you choose to surround yourself with is stronger than the one you’re born into. I thought, that’s universal. And everyone can relate to family dynamics — good or bad.”

DuSold also cites the universal resonance, if not the specifics, of Lola’s journey to discover her true self, which becomes possible through the abiding love of Robert.

“I think everybody has a journey to finally feel comfortable in their own skin,” he says. “And what really brings that transformation about is the love of another person.”

Documentaries are often static by nature, with the camera pointed at various talking heads. The challenge of adapting one for the stage is to create a compelling narrative. The drama builds from Robert’s deteriorating health and his desire to bring Lola as his date to the Southern Comfort Conference, an annual gathering in Atlanta that’s called “the cotillion of the transgender community.” But the central conflict in the musical winds up being the desire of Robert’s “surrogate” son, Jackson, to pursue phalloplasty surgery — a major departure from the film — and Robert’s angry admonition, “We always agreed that man or woman was about what’s in your heart and your head, not between your legs.”

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Which raises a dilemma: What are the ethical implications of altering the details of a character or inventing a new narrative arc? Do the creators have an obligation to remain faithful to the truth of the documentary and the real-life people it depicts?

Collins acknowledges that it was nerve-racking, especially “when you know that your characters can talk back,” he says of the real-life documentary subjects, several of whom came to see the workshop production.

They sought to “keep the essence” of the real-life figures, DuSold says. But he cautions, “You can’t be true to every single aspect of people, every single life or moment from someone’s life. You have to be able to open them up to drama so you can make it a compelling musical.”

The team considered casting transgender actors and even auditioned a few. But in the end, they sought the best actors for the job, no matter their gender. With Robert and Lola, DuSold says he relished the theatricality of seeing an actor playing someone of the opposite sex.

“I think it disarms an audience, because you have a female energy and a male energy. It’s just reversed,” Caruso says. “That’s more important than anything — that there’s two opposing energies, a yin and a yang, that make the couple work.”

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Whether it’s Chaz Bono competing on “Dancing With the Stars” or a former Navy SEAL who recently came out as transitioning, transgender people seem to be enjoying a higher profile than ever before. But DuSold and Caruso point out that you can still be legally fired from your job for being transgender in a majority of states. And according to a recent report, transgender people experience unemployment at twice the national rate. So the show feels more urgent than ever, they say.

“People are more curious and wanting to know more information about transgender people and their experience,” says Wick Davis. “So it’s the perfect time for this show.”


Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.