“I don’t see gender anymore, Mama. Whether somebody’s a boy or a girl don’t make no difference to me.”
Trisha is a loving mother with an open mind, and when her tween child says those words to her, Trisha’s first impulse is to listen and learn. The Pink Unicorn is about that learning curve, and about how Trisha learns that understanding won’t be enough: She’ll also need to take action.
There’s more than a little autobiography in Elise Forier Edie’s one-woman play, which is currently being presented by Illusion Theater at the Lowry Lab in St. Paul. As she explains in a program note, the writer is mother to a transgender child. Edie was specifically inspired to write The Pink Unicorn after hearing a sermon equating LBGTQ allies to Nazis and after learning of a high school that banned all extracurricular activities rather than acknowledge a Gay and Straight Alliance.
The play has spread rapidly since its 2013 premiere—unsurprisingly so, with its fluency, its economy, and its timeliness as a lot of cisgender people steer into Trisha’s learning curve, catching up with the lived realities of their friends and loved ones. Tony winner Alice Ripley has recently played Trisha in New York, and 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities has presented the show at multiple venues.
Kate Guentzel stepped into Trisha’s shoes at Illusion in 2018; she’s now reprising the role in St. Paul and at venues across greater Minnesota. It’s an absolutely focused and committed performance that works because, under the direction of Michael Robins, Guentzel hews to the authenticity of a character who doesn’t seek the spotlight. Trisha doesn’t set out to wring tears or inspire laughter, and though The Pink Unicorn does some of each, Guentzel doesn’t hold those beats because this is not about her.
That makes it all the more graceful, and moving, when Trisha’s own youth slips into the story around its edges. We learn about her stern mother and about her brother’s struggles with addiction; the script doesn’t strain to introduce those characters, each given distinct voice by Guentzel, but lets Trisha grapple with their relevance to her life’s unexpected turns. Nor does Edie portray her character as suddenly, universally woke: In describing her new allies, Trisha does some body-shaming and even uses an ableist slur.
The Lowry Lab Theater, a teaching space for the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, is not one of the Twin Cities’ most glamorous performance spaces. It feels like you’re entering the Lowry Building’s hidden panic room, and when the central HVAC kicks in, actors have to raise their voices.
Perhaps the most apt show ever to be staged there was Waiting for Godot, but the venue also fits the down-to-earth aesthetic of this Pink Unicorn. Performing in mom togs on a sparsely furnished stage, Guentzel becomes Trisha and draws you into her story. If the ending’s a little cheesy, well, everybody needs a Hallmark moment once in awhile.
The Pink Unicorn
Lowry Lab Theater
350 St. Peter St., St. Paul
Through March 15; illusiontheater.org