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Young cast struggles to find its footing in ‘Southern Comfort’

Kyra Leigh and North Homeward are among the cast of "Southern Comfort" now playing at Pride Arts Center. | Heather Mall Photo

Near the beginning of the 2001 film documentary “Southern Comfort,” its main subject, a small-town Georgia man named Robert Eads, tells a story about a “good ol’ boy” he met while smoking outside a Walmart.

“We got to chattin’, and he starts telling me about this group he belongs to,” Robert tells the camera, the twinkle in his eye visible even through his tinted glasses. “And he just knew that I’d fit right in with the boys, that I’d be a good asset to their organization, and he wants me to come join.” The group, it turns out, was an anti-government organization and an offshoot — or as Robert calls it, a “shootoff” — of the Ku Klux Klan.

‘Southern Comfort’
★★1⁄2
When: Through March 31
Where: Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway
Tickets: $30 – $40
Info: pridefilmsandplays.com
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission

“I can just imagine if I walk into their meeting, and introduce myself and tell ‘em what I am, I imagine it’d be quite a scene,” Robert concludes with a grin.

What Robert was was transgender in the Deep South. He was also the patriarch of a “chosen family” of other transgender men and their partners in Toccoa, Georgia, about 90 miles northeast of Atlanta. And in 1998, the year that filmmaker Kate Davis spent following Robert and his family for the documentary that went on to earn the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, he was dying; in a particularly cruel irony, he had been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.

The anecdote about the KKK recruiter appears almost verbatim, and nearly as early, in the stage musical adaptation of Davis’ documentary, now receiving its Chicago premiere at Pride Films & Plays. And you understand why adapters Dan Collins and Julianne Wick Davis kept it: It goes a long way toward efficiently establishing Robert’s kind and mischievous nature, the environment in which he and his friends exist, and the degree to which he’s able to pass as a good ol’ boy himself. But not every piece of Robert’s story translates so cleanly.

North Homeward (from left), Benjamin Flores, Ricki Pettinato, Lizzie Sulkowski, Sinclair Willman and Kyra Leigh star in "Southern Comfort." | Heather Mall Photo

North Homeward (from left), Benjamin Flores, Ricki Pettinato, Lizzy Sulkowski, Sinclair Willman and Kyra Leigh star in “Southern Comfort.” | Heather Mall Photo

Robert’s circle includes his girlfriend Lola; Jackson, whom Robert playfully calls his “son” and who calls Robert “Pops”; Jackson’s girlfriend Carly; and Sam and his wife Melanie. Melanie, as it happens, is the only cisgender member of the group. Jackson and Sam are trans men, and Carly and Lola are trans women — though Lola is early enough in her own transition that she still presents as “Jeff” at work.

“Southern Comfort,” the film, is a keenly observed portrait of this small community, valuable both at the time of its release and now because the experiences and perspectives it portrayed were woefully underrepresented. But it doesn’t have much in the way of narrative drive or dramatic tension; beyond simply observing and getting to know Robert and the people in his circle, there’s not much shape to the story.

For the stage, Collins and Davis — whose work includes another LGBTQ-themed musical, “Trevor,” which premiered at Writers Theatre in 2017 — attempt to impose some shape by introducing a rift between Robert and Jackson over the latter’s consideration of reconstructive genital surgery; as a source of dramatic conflict here, it feels forced.

Davis’ songs tend toward country, folk and bluegrass styles, performed by a five-piece band at the back of the stage who also sing and serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The melodies are often lovely, even if they lean a little heavily on ballads, and the musicians in Pride’s production (under the music direction of Robert Ollis) are all impressive multi-instrumentalists and singers.

The same can’t be said of the whole cast, unfortunately. Admirably, this production of “Southern Comfort” appears to be the first to have all the trans characters played by trans performers; prior stagings in New York and Massachusetts featured the actress Annette O’Toole as Robert and cisgender male actors playing both Lola and Jackson.

Here, the actor North Homeward’s performance as Robert is both compellingly truthful and handsomely sung, even if he, like the rest of the cast, is a couple of decades too young for his role. Kyra Leigh, as Lola, has a strong voice and a disarming take on her character’s hesitancy.

But the supporting actors here — again, all quite young — consistently overplay their emotions. What’s worse, they lack the vocal confidence that this city’s musical theater connoisseurs have come to expect. When combined with Collins’ excessively verbose lyrics, a muddy sound design, and a physical staging by director JD Caudill that’s rife with traffic jams, “Southern Comfort” manages to be commendable, invigorating, and insufficient all at once.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.