Gender Bender

Meltdown in the nuclear family: Fred Wagner, Sally Ann Wright, and Taylor Bolstad
Loren Wolthoff

ARTisphere Theatre/Torch Theater
at Minneapolis Theater Garage
through February 3

It's for good reason that we describe people as comfortable, or not, inside their skin. These bodies of ours define us so completely, and feeling alienated from our corporal form presents a unique type of pain. Jane Anderson's Looking for Normal, though, goes far past the territory of those who wish they could lose 20 pounds or regain their hairline. It presents an understated yet vivid portrait of something far more fundamental: how gender is constructed, or altered.

The action begins in (presumably small-town) Ohio, with the long-married Roy (Fred Wagner) and Irma (Sally Ann Wright) in couples counseling with their pastor, Reverend Muncie (Garry Geiken). It seems Roy's been a little out of sorts lately and, after Irma is asked to leave the room, the reverend runs through the usual laundry list of marital woes: Is it an affair? Lack of sexual interest? No, Roy announces. The problem is that he's always been a woman trapped in a man's body, and he's decided to get sex-change surgery.

In the early going this plays like a comedy; Wagner's a big guy, and it's fun to watch Geiken's homily-prone preacher man flounder in previously unimagined waters. But director Terry Lynn Carlson emphasizes little touches in Anderson's script, and Wagner (a gifted comic actor) pulls back on the laugh lever and instead offers a fascinating, gradual transformation in his character's bearing, manner, and attitude.

Wright is the linchpin here, because her Irma has to undergo her own subtle evolution without losing the character's central integrity. It's a balancing act that Wright pulls off, with flashes of anger, hints of longing, and an occasional long-suffering roll of the eyes. Crucially, she inhabits this Midwestern mother with a simplicity that never veers into condescension.

Irma first throws Roy out on his ass (following a scene in which Wagner achieves a vulnerable sweetness in explaining why Roy wants to stay with his beloved wife, albeit as a woman himself. Irma, to say the least, doesn't buy in). Then Irma is summarily hit on by Roy's boss, Frank (John Middleton, very funny in a small role that requires behaving with stupendous awkwardness). A confusing but affecting sequence follows, in which Irma finds Roy with a gun barrel in his mouth and comes to realize that their separation isn't really going to work out.

Here the show assumes grace when it could have settled for shock and laughs (not that there aren't laughs, but they tend to be followed by renewed awareness of how heavy this situation is). Roy, back at the roost, begins taking hormones to abet his transformation. Between himself, his teenage daughter, and Irma's hormone treatment for menopause, their household is awash in what must be record estrogen levels. (A breakfast scene between the three of them is hilarious—a study in crankiness.) Soon enough Roy is growing breasts, wearing makeup, soliciting the bemused Irma's advice on women's clothes, and donning a wig of, shall we say, questionable taste.

The family at home slowly comes to grips with Roy's odyssey, but adult son Wayne (Randy Schmeling) is less than pleased, and telling Roy's father (Larry Roupe, who plays an elderly farmer in a state of constant, inarticulate outrage) what's going on is pretty much beyond considering. Wayne subsequently comes home for Thanksgiving and manages to rein in his disapproval for a time, until finally exploding and provoking his dress-wearing dad into a fistfight.

Because the show begins with Roy announcing his intent, we don't get a lot in the way of back story, and with less assured direction this play might have failed to get off the ground. But the across-the-board quality of the performances here draw out the many fine points and subtleties in the script, and as a result the audience ends up feeling a bit transformed as well. When Roy is wheeled offstage for surgery and a new life, we've seen enough to really care for the big lug. And we're left in search of a new descriptor. "Lug-ette," anyone?

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