Often stage narratives about LGBTQ people use stories of familial rejection as their anchors, but the beauty of Southern Comfort is in its centering of trans love and queer joy. Vile parents lurk on the periphery, but this play is not about them. It’s never been about them.
A bluegrass musical based on the award-winning documentary, Southern Comfort gets its Chicago premiere with Pride Films and Plays under the direction of JD Caudill, with North Homeward starring as Robert Eads, a trans man from Toccoa, Georgia, who has been disregarded by a transphobic health-care system and now faces terminal ovarian cancer. His final wish is to hit the Southern Comfort conference, an annual communion of trans folks where he met his sweetheart, Lola (Kyra Leigh). The couple is part of a larger chosen family that includes Jackson (Lizzy Sulkowski), Carly (Ricki Pettinato), Sam (Benjamin Flores), and Melanie (Sinclair Willman). While the group must come to terms with their patriarch’s death, they also hold intimate conversations about everything from Snickers salad to gender-affirmation surgeries. The mundane moments make for sweet sitcom, something rarely afforded to communities forced to defend their humanity to the outside world.
While there are a number of robust performances by trans actors playing trans characters, the show-stopping moments belong to Leigh, whose take on Lola brilliantly encapsulates the shifts in vulnerability that come with self-actualization. Her comedic timing whips air into tense moments, but it’s her conversation with Eads’s parents towards the end of the show that recently left a Sunday-matinee audience utterly intoxicated, in big, ugly tears. v