Human moments help 20% Theatre's trans-themed 'Ballast' soar

Nadia Honary

Nadia Honary

The irony of Ballast, as a metaphor, is that it’s… well, a little heavy. It’s prominent in Georgette Kelly’s play, along with a number of other symbolic situations encountered in dreams by characters negotiating intensely emotional personal challenges.

Mixed Blood Theatre

Ballast had its world premiere this spring in San Diego. It’s now playing at Mixed Blood under the auspices of 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities. The play centers on an adult woman and a teenage boy, both trans, whose lives become, at least briefly, connected.

The woman is Grace (Eileen Noonan), a pastor who has transitioned with the support of her wife, Zoe (Olivia Wilusz). As Grace struggles with the evasions of her bishop (Marcel Michelle), Zoe tries to understand what it means to be in love with a woman who she understood to be a man when they wed.

Meanwhile, the boy, Xavier (Jayden Simmons), has the confident support of his girlfriend, Savannah (Piper Quinn). That means the world to Xavier, but he still faces a family—and a society—that struggles to accept him for who he is. Savannah may be a good influence for Xavier’s heart, but she also tempts him into repeated thefts of property, so warnings for Xavier to be wary of the girl aren’t entirely baseless.

Claire Avitabile directs her cast in no-frills staging, on a simple set by Karen Lee Tait-Fries: a table, a bed, a couple chairs, a pulpit that doubles as a liquor cabinet. (Nice touch.) Composer Walken Schweigert’s “dream music” is a little cloying, but serves the useful function of helping us distinguish when characters are interacting in the real world from when they’re lost in their restless reveries.

In a recurring dream, Zoe takes flying lessons from an instructor (Zealot Hamm) who hints that Zoe needs to let go of her baggage, that she needs to keep her focus on the future. Hamm also plays a “figment” of Xavier’s imagination, a mysterious doppelgänger who challenges the boy to see himself clearly and to show that true self to his loved ones.

The play’s episodic structure, with frequent blackouts marking cuts between short scenes, is frustrating given that the show is at its strongest when its conversations linger; when Zoe and Grace air their mutual frustrations, or when Savannah tenderly coaxes Xavier out of his shell. One of the most compelling interactions is between Savannah and Zoe, who envies the younger woman’s more intuitive understanding of how to negotiate life with a trans partner.

If the production is a little rough around the edges, well, so is life. The four leading actors give performances pulsing with empathy and vulnerability. Kelly’s script doesn’t promise any easy answers to their questions, and while the central metaphor is overworked, it’s clearly apt: An airplane can’t go backwards, and neither can any of these characters, even if they’re sometimes tempted to glance in that direction.

Mixed Blood Theatre
1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
612-227-1188; through September 10