“Southern Comfort,” which is playing at the CAP21 Theater Company’s new space in Chelsea, will never have the exposure of Chaz Bono, who is putting a human face on the transgender-rights struggle for millions of viewers this season on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” But in its own small way, this affecting folk-bluegrass musical by Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins makes a heartfelt bid to shift perceptions.
The show is based on the 2001 documentary of the same name by Kate Davis. With compassion and restraint, the film chronicles the final year in the life of the female-to-male transsexual Robert Eads, a wiry Georgia backwoods type who died of ovarian cancer in one last cruel trick of nature. Mr. Eads had to travel miles for medical care after being refused treatment at numerous hospitals for fear of unsettling other patients.
But what distinguishes both the movie and this respectful adaptation is less the sorrow of the haunting true story than the spirit of forgiveness and tolerance that infuses it.
Lovingly designed in beat-up timber by James J. Fenton, the rural Georgia home of Robert (Annette O’Toole) provides a welcoming environment for a family chosen, as one of the characters observes, “not by blood, just by circumstance.”
They include Robert’s girlfriend, Lola (Jeff McCarthy), a transgender woman still struggling with transition; two more men who were born as women, Maxwell (Jeffrey Kuhn) and Cas (Todd Cerveris); and their respective partners, the male-to-female Cori (Natalie Joy Johnson) and Stephanie (Robin Skye), the group’s sole biologically unaltered member.
Backed by five musicians, four of whom frequently put down their instruments to serve as storytellers and actors, the cast draws the relationships with tenderness, as the group plans to attend the Southern Comfort Conference, described by Cas as “the cotillion of the transgender community,” in Atlanta. There’s a tacit understanding that this annual weekend idyll of belonging will be Robert’s last.
Conflict stems from Maxwell’s wish to proceed with full gender reassignment surgery, clashing with the beliefs of his surrogate father, Robert. “We always agreed that man or woman was about what’s in your heart and your head, not between your legs,” Robert says.
The show ambles a bit at 2 hours, 20 minutes, and its gentle, rootsy score overloads on heart-tugging emotional ballads. But the entire cast responds well to Thomas Caruso’s sensitive direction, especially Ms. O’Toole and Mr. McCarthy, who make a memorable stage couple. Her diminutive frame and his towering linebacker presence are paired to amusing effect.
Mr. McCarthy will be nobody’s idea of a natural beauty. But he conveys Lola’s imprisoned womanliness with aching delicacy, awkwardly drawing in his body to try to negate his masculine form. The unrecognizable Ms. O’Toole is tremendously moving too. She vanishes into Robert, whose gaunt face expresses the serenity of a man who has found happiness while still remembering the pain of a girl growing up in the wrong body.