WINTER PARK – Imagine you’ve been putting it off for a very long time, but suddenly you feel you simply can’t hold off that journey any more. It’s something you’ve been avoiding, because you were afraid of taking such a huge leap of faith. But deep inside, you’ve known for a very long while that it’s only a matter of time before you have to start walking down that path.
In the opening scene of Jane Anderson’s play “Looking for Normal,” Roy and Irma have been married for 24 years, but they’ve hit a rough patch and have turned to their local minister, Rev. Muncie, for assistance. Roy seems depressed, and agitated. He still loves Irma, he insists, but there are problems he’s dealing with.
The reverend smiles, and asks Irma to leave the room. It seems pretty obvious to him what the matter is: Roy, now in his 50s, is likely feeling the affects of aging and has lost some of his sex drive, a common problem that the minister hears frequently from other married men. He assures Roy that if this is the problem, it’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
But as it turns out, the minister is way off. Roy’s problem has nothing to do with a lower sex drive. His problem is that for decades, the boy who grew up the only son in a family where he had several sisters always felt like something wasn’t quite right about himself. He hid all this deep within himself for years, too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. The truth is, Roy always felt like a woman trapped inside a man’s body, and he no longer wants to struggle with this challenge. He’s made a major decision: to get a sex change, and finally become the woman he always believes he was meant to be.
Needless to say, for both the small town reverend and for Roy’s loyal wife Irma, it’s the start of a long, bumpy, totally confusing journey. Of all the problems Roy could have been struggling with, this one was about the last thing they had expected.
One of the interesting things about Anderson’s play is that while it sometimes screams out “Hot button social issue,” it does so in a calm and measured way. It doesn’t always work smoothly. Anderson creates a series of short vignettes that follow how Irma and Roy, and their children, struggle to cope with the drastic changes that Roy’s decision has brought into their lives.
Some of it is done quite beautifully, including Irma’s decision early on to ask Roy to move out of the house now that he wants to become a woman, only to find herself rallying to his side when he becomes scared, depressed and suicidal.
At other times, though, Anderson’s use of a kind of true-life situational humor feels forced, including scenes where Roy becomes cranky and irritable while undergoing hormone treatments, or when he and his wife and daughter talk about his newly emerging breasts. At moments like this, Anderson moves shakily between feeling like a Lifetime channel movie of the week and “Glen and Glenda.”
On the other hand, it’s hard not to watch this play without understanding this is not some wild scenario, but one that’s been reflected in some recent high profile news stories — including one here in Florida. In February 2007, City Commissioners in the town of Largo near Tampa voted to fire its city manager, Steve Stanton, after he announced that he planned to get a sex change operation. Stanton, 48 at the time, said he was receiving hormone therapy in preparation for surgery and would undergo a “gender assignment” to become Susan Stanton.
You can also look at the recent appearance of Chaz Bono — born a girl named Chastity to celebrates Sonny and Cher Bono before undergoing a similar operation — on “Dancing With The Stars,” and some of the controversy he generated, to know this is a situation that impacts people and their families every day.
One of the play’s great strengths, in terms of the production at the Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, is the absolutely superb performances by actors who truly do bring these simple characters to life. Every time Anderson’s play starts to make them seem like an archetype – Roy the real nice guy who deserves support in his quest to be a woman, Irma the nice woman who is just so confused about how to handle this – the actors breathe a remarkable amount of poignance and sincerity into every word they speak.
Tim Bass is convincing as Roy because of the way this 50-something man ranges between acting like an adult who has finally decided to gain control of his life, to looking like an excited kid who has dreamed for years of going to Disney World and is finally getting there. Sometimes as he walks that balance between sober minded adult ready to change his sex, to kid finally getting his cherished toy, Roy stumbles through an awful lot of genuine fear and anxiety. His parents are conservative, and so is his church, and his wife can’t figure out how they can maintain a marriage as two women. It’s complicated, and nobody know where it’s going to lead them.
Cira Larkin is just as good as the stable, loyal wife who was so happy with things as they were, but doesn’t think she deserved this crazy curve ball that life tossed her way. At time angry, frustrated, and determined to keep her family together, she has few more wonderful moments than when Irma takes it upon herself to start picking out Roy’s new clothes as a woman, knowing he’s going to make a lousy choice if he selects them himself.
“Looking for Normal” manages to transcend its initial TV movie of the week feel, thanks to an abundance of humor that doesn’t feel forced or campy, while the cast is eloquent and real. They’re the kind of people you end up caring deeply about – and you start to root for them to find a way to make all this work.
It’s to Breakthrough Theatre’s great credit that by the end, it’s been such a moving experience to share that journey with them.
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