Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review - Looking For Normal - ARTisphere Theatre - 4-1/2 stars

This show is one I very highly recommend, but if you're looking for still other options, you can find links here or here...

I've been accused recently of loving everything I see. To which I reply, really? Look at this, this, this, this, or this. For starters.

That said, let's get onto something I enjoyed...

Review - Looking For Normal - ARTisphere Theatre - 4-1/2 stars

“All this so my grandson can go to the grocery store wearing a dress, and not be killed.”

If it’s possible for a theater production to be 100 percent heart, ARTisphere’s “Looking For Normal” would come darn close. It’s not that it doesn’t also have a brain, and a very active and challenging one at that, but the sheer volume of emotion is almost overwhelming. That doesn’t mean “Looking For Normal” is overly sentimental. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The emotion is so honest, and genuine, it’s breathtaking.

Given its history in getting to the stage, this shouldn’t have surprised me. The whole production is a labor of love, and it shows. “Looking For Normal” is a script that husband and wife team Frederick Wagner and Sally Ann Wright have been hanging onto for several years now. The desire to tell the story, and play the characters of Roy and Irma, was so great, they teamed up with director Terry Lynn Carlson and company manager Elizabeth M. Desotelle to start a brand new theater company in order to help make it happen. Partnering with Torch Theater was the final piece in the puzzle to get ARTisphere Theatre and “Looking For Normal” on stage and in front of an audience.

What’s so compelling about this story? Looking at it on paper, it might have been a trainwreck. After twenty-five years of blue collar marriage in Ohio, John Deere quality control manager Roy (Wagner) confides in Reverend Muncie (Garry Geiken) that he is convinced he was born in the wrong body. Roy intends to get a sex change operation and live the remainder of his life as a woman. Right after he tells his wife Irma (Wright).

As a drama, this idea could have been hopelessly earnest and preachy (especially with a pastor in the cast of characters). As a comedy, it could have been all cheap shots and easy laughs. What makes “Looking For Normal” work is that it treads that middle ground between the two, and ARTisphere’s production plays to that strength for all it’s worth. The laughs are plentiful, but they come from character and situation, not one-liners, and most importantly, not at any one person’s expense. Jane Anderson’s script shines a light on everyone’s failings and foibles equally. Everyone’s discomfort, including the audience’s, is acknowledged, but not coddled. The play turns the status quo inside out without being disrespectful.

Roy’s choice means a great deal of adjustment for all those around him - his elderly parents Em and Roy Sr. (Anita O’Sullivan and Larry Roupe), wife Irma, teenage daughter Patty Ann (Taylor Bolstad), grown son Wayne (Randy Schmeling), boss Frank (John Middleton), and his church, led by Reverend Muncie. In fact, the only one in his life who might understand, is his long-dead grandmother Ruth (Mo Perry), who appears throughout the proceedings to prove that gender-bending and unconventional couplings have run in the family for a great many years.

Ruth, for all her insights, felt she had to run away to live her life fully. Roy’s challenge, and ultimate salvation, is that he wants to continue living where he is, surrounded by the people he loves. However, this isn’t easy for anyone, Roy included. One of the reasons Irma won’t believe in Roy’s female identity is because, “Only a man could be this selfish.”

Denying his identity has led Roy to the brink of suicide, more than once. It is only after seeing this for herself that Irma realizes Roy can’t go it alone. She lets him move back home, and struggles to come to terms with what their family is becoming. Even has her husband is trying to turn himself into a woman, Irma’s tomboyish daughter Patty Ann is trying with all her might not to turn into a young woman herself. Bolstad’s work as Patty Ann is delightful, verging on scene-stealing. Her presentations on a woman’s menstrual cycle and her father’s impending gender reassignment surgery are hilarious, and practically show-stoppers. The bonding that occurs between Patty Ann and her ever more female father figure, built upon a barrage of questions which opens the second act, is funny and heartwarming in equal measure. But at the same time, the audience sees the toll this shift in the home dynamic is taking on Irma.

This double edge to a scene or relationship is something which the script sets up time and again, and the production delivers on - all the laughter, all the good feeling, has behind it a foundation of reality, and that reality is hard, even painful, for the other people watching someone find a little happiness. There are trade-offs. For everything gained, something is lost.

Geiken’s minister struggles mightily to understand and help Roy. At first, he tries to push Roy, and even Irma, back toward what he considers normal, what he truly believes would make them most happy. The reverend isn’t judging them. He has faith that if he can guide them back toward the life they’ve always lived, things will sort themselves out - despite all evidence to the contrary. Later, because other members of his congregation are uncomfortable, just as he is, he retreats from these two people who have done so much for his church. Though there is no face-to-face reconciliation between Muncie, Roy and Irma, the pastor’s final sermon shared with the audience, deeply conflicted over a complex issue of faith, shows that his search for a new normal continues. Where it ends, for anybody, we don’t know. But the intelligent grappling with faith as well as sex and love and family, is a welcome added layer that most plays don’t touch.

Roy’s father, abandoned by his own mother Ruth, and stung by his son’s refusal to take over the family farm, is kept in the dark about that son’s transformation. Wife Em feels this is for his own good, since Roy Sr.’s condition is deteriorating. He himself is transforming into something no one else recognizes. When father and new daughter are finally able to meet, a great deal has been lost. Thanks to Anita O’Sullivan and Larry Roupe, two characters who started out almost as comedy stereotypes end up being very, very human.

John Middleton, as Roy’s supportive boss Frank, and Randy Schmeling, as Roy’s son Wayne, each serve up a different slice of what it’s like to be a man in the 21st century with its suddenly fluid notions of gender. Frank is drawn to Irma’s sanity, a quality he doesn’t find in his own wife, who keeps leaving him and returning. His hopes of becoming Irma’s new husband when Roy makes his transformation are dashed in ever more awkward and amusing ways as Irma’s true feelings slowly make themselves known. Wayne is almost more disturbed by his father’s newfound sensitivity and emotional openness than the fact Roy is wearing women’s clothing and makeup. Sometimes a good fist fight is the quickest way to clear the air. Middleton and Schmeling take what could have been louts and turn them into hapless souls we come to care for, in all their confusion and bungled attempts to make a connection with others.

As a gender warrior ahead of her time, you could say grandmother Ruth gets a lot of the play’s best material, but that would be giving short shrift to a play chock full of good material. Mo Perry, however, makes it tempting to make such pronouncements. Each time she takes the stage as Ruth, Perry acts not only as connective tissue between scenes, but as a solid foundation for the other characters and themes of the play to build upon. Her performance of Ruth’s ode to the various people she has loved in her travels around the globe throughout her life is a beautiful evocation of the idea that love often doesn’t care what the person looks like. We are more than the sum of our imperfect body parts.

This central tenet of the play is given fullest life in the peculiar romance of Roy and Irma. After a quarter-century of life together, they are only just now beginning to appreciate each other fully. All of this at the same time the traditional roles of husband and wife are being turned on their head.

Frederick Wagner as Roy has the flashier of the two roles, and the one in which an actor could probably get in the most trouble. Wagner has to tread a very fine line as his character evolves into a woman over the full span of the play. At rise, he’s a “regular guy.” By the end, visiting his parents, he is a woman in appearance and behavior, just waiting for the final surgery to complete the process. There is a lot of ground to cover in between, sometimes in increments, sometimes in great leaps. Just as Roy always felt like a woman inside, there is always a man inside the woman that he becomes. Wagner himself is an imposing presence onstage. Getting an audience to buy into this transformation without it seeming like an awkward drag act is a big task, but Wagner pulls it off. The script helps by allowing the audience to see the missteps along the way, as Roy learns what this new body and way of life are all about, and the adjustments they will require of him. Wagner’s portrayal of a human being on a journey from tormented soul to joyful new life is fascinating to watch.

Just as tricky, in a much quieter way, is the journey Sally Ann Wright must take as Irma. It often seems as if for everything her husband Roy gains on his quest, Irma loses something equally important. Wright does a wonderful job of taking the material the script gives her and creating a fully human portrait of a woman who sees her whole life being torn apart, forcing her to find the strength to build a new one. Irma is the one who holds the family together. Irma is the one with equally big decisions to make. Everyone around Irma is giving her permission to move on. She could cut ties, leave her husband of 25 years or kick him out, and no one would blame her. At first, that’s exactly what she does. But just as Roy still carries a tremendous love for his wife, Irma also can’t shake Roy out of her heart. Wright shows us that, even though it is costing Irma a great deal in terms of her own personal dignity and the loss of a life she loved, she cares deeply for this man. He is lost. He is in pain. She loves him, and wants to help. It is far from easy, for either of them, but the struggle also includes a lot of laughter, and a lot of heart. In Wright’s hands, Irma’s final words which close the play not only make this strange journey understandable, they are also quite moving.

The only thing that keeps this production from being damn near perfect is the pacing. While the individual performances and scenes are all wonderful, getting from one part of the story to the next often seems needlessly labored. This is perplexing, since the script presents a structure which could easily flow from one scene to the next. The set, designed by Erik Paulson, who also designed the lights, seems ready to reinforce the smooth flow of the journey. There are multiple platforms, plus the space across the front of the stage, all of which are used well. There are multiple doors across the back wall of the set, which is a cornfield and sky all painted on scrim which, depending on the light, one can see through. This trick of the light could have gotten more use, but that’s not the main issue. Even with other actors on stage, ready to go, or others who could easily bound into view and keep the action going, the production feels compelled to give the audience unnecessary blackouts and sound and music cues. This has the unfortunate effect of killing any overall momentum the production might have. Scene. Stop. Scene. Stop. Actors are allowed to speak while walking in from offstage. They are allowed to walk onstage or across the stage while the lights are shifting. They are even allowed to walk out of one scene into another. It’s a pity this production didn’t allow them to do so.

However, the script is so good and the performances so winning, the audience is willing to forgive the production any clumsiness. After seeing this production, I find myself wanting to seek out the movie version as well. While it certainly won’t be exactly like the play, the experience of ARTisphere’s “Looking For Normal” makes me want to spend more time with these characters. When you see it, and you should, you’ll want to do the same.

Very highly recommended.

There are still two weekends of “Looking For Normal” left, including this one. The production runs Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm, now through February 3, 2008. Performances are at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, 711 West Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis (just off the corner of Franklin and Lyndale). For reservations and further information, call 612-788-3639.

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