Greater acceptance for the transgender community might be reflected in the Amazon TV series "Transparent" or the reception of Caitlyn Jenner. But the lopsided defeat last month for an anti-discrimination referendum in Houston, after warnings that so-called fake gender-switching men would stalk women's restrooms, suggests that full transgender rights remains a frontier too far for some.
This makes the arrival of Lillie Franks' play "A Little Bit Not Normal" at Cohesion Theatre Company timely and provocative. It's not a masterpiece, and the staging has a particularly unfortunate weakness in casting. But this worthy effort opens a window into lives and issues that matter, while serving up a fair number of laughs on the side.
As the production's fluent stage director, Cohesion co-founder Alice Stanley, puts it in a program note, the play's "main character is a trans woman, played by a trans woman, written by a trans woman, and directed by a trans person." There's a whole lot of conventional theater being swept away with one big gesture. Can't underestimate the value of that.
The conflict in this work is not about transitioning. Franks gives us someone already totally comfortable in her skin, just as comfortable in a relationship with a woman. The conflict comes from the surprise surfacing of an estranged father who hasn't quite finished the mental and emotional process required to accept a child who no longer identifies with the gender specified on a birth certificate.
The playwright adds a heavy dose of the surreal-comic that, instead of providing extra illumination, often distracts from the meaty matters at hand. A more straightforward drama might have been an even bolder step. But the offbeat humor helps balance the preachy or stilted passages. And there's something to be said for a talking cat, especially one who's dating God who is revealed as a woman with unsettled issues with her superhero brother.
At the center of all this is Devon, who sees reconnecting with her father as a chance to have "one normal thing" in her life. Erica Burns is tackling her first big acting role, and it shows. Her one-note delivery and stiff gestures keep Devon from dominating the stage as she should.
The others jump more comfortably into their characters, offering lots of nuance in speech and gesture as they go.
John Robert Wright conveys the nervousness, regret, defense-mechanism-humor and, above all, sincerity of Devon's father, Patrick. The actor gets to the heart of things beautifully in a crucial scene where Patrick confesses to Devon: "I tried pressuring you to be a boy, because I could understand that. And then I tried making you into a boy who wanted to be a girl, because I could understand that ... And now, well, I can't say that I understand, but I can say that for the first time, I'm OK with not understanding."
The role of the cat suggests something out of an acting class assignment, but Martha Robichaud carries it off with aplomb, especially the deadpan lines ("Well, don't you look like something the human dragged in").
Melanie Glickman has a good romp as God, dispensing one-liners handily (recovering from a wild pratfall: "I move in mysterious ways"). Fred Fletcher-Jackson cavorts in droll fashion all over the place in a Superman costume — he's actually "Supraman," because he's "able to avoid trademark lawsuits in a single bound."
And Casey Dutt does assured, colorful work as Devon's partner, Nancy, who delivers the play's key message: "Nobody is normal and nobody should be. It's basically just the two-syllable version of 'society-approved,' and society has always had bad taste." Dutt also designed the effective set.
The staging at the Church on the Square is hampered by overly reverberant acoustics, which can swallow up dialogue. But the venue does have boldly marked gender-neutral restrooms, so there's that.