April 17, 2007

Pandora production explores ‘the change’ with sensitivity

“Looking for Normal”: Submitted Photo The cast of “Looking for Normal” — standing (from l-r): Betty Zielinski, Trina Fischer and Fred Fischer. Seated (from l-r): Mike Slaton, Georgette Kleier, Bob Zielinski and Anna Francis.Gender reassignment at any age presents major challenges. When a person chooses to go forward with the surgery late in life, after years of marriage in the American hinterlands, the consequences can be catastrophic. “Looking for Normal” explores what happens when a 45-year-old outwardly “normal” man summons the courage to undergo this radical change.Roy (warmly played by Bob Zielinski) breaks the news first to his conservative pastor that God has sanctioned a sex change to correct nature’s mistake. The Rev. Muncie (Dale Strange) doesn’t dispute God’s word, but has difficulty grasping the concept. The pastor implies Roy may be simply avoiding a midlife crisis.“If I wanted to shirk my responsibility,” Roy responds, “there would be easier ways than having my pecker chopped off.”This exchange succinctly points out the enormity of what transgendered individuals face when “coming out.”Roy’s menopausal wife, Irma, doesn’t take Roy’s bombshell calmly. “I don’t believe you’re a woman. Only a man could be so selfish!” she shrieks.But isn’t Irma just as selfish for wanting Roy to go on living a lie? We aren’t told what led to Roy’s decision. We land instead in the middle of its consequences. How he came to this point doesn’t really matter. The play focuses poignantly and humorously on his and his family’s adjustment to and acceptance of the revelation.Without being didactic, playwright Jane Anderson suggests there may be a genetic component to transgenderism — Roy’s grandmother (Trina Fischer) recounts in flashbacks how she fled to Europe where she could wear men’s clothing and enjoy free love. Roy’s ebullient pre-teen daughter, Patty Ann, feels more at ease in Roy’s old shirts.While our culture likes to poke fun at a middle-aged man dressed as a woman (think of Jonathan Winters or Robin Williams), “Looking for Normal” handles this situation lovingly without making Roy into a caricature. We learn the importance of familial support during this difficult transition. It is unimaginable that in this day and time, there is still so much prejudice against those who were born into the wrong body.The play isn’t without flaws — the monologues are both annoying and cloying, as monologues usually are. But overall, the play is moving and worth seeing. Anna Francis turns in a lively performance as the inquisitive Patty Ann. Georgette Kleier elicits audience empathy with Irma as she grapples with the sudden change.Stage manager Nancy Clinton makes the most of the cramped space (to accommodate Pandora’s growing audience, seats were placed along all four walls) but can’t avoid that cluttered feeling of claustrophobia. Actors struggled at times to find their places amid the huge furniture taking up most of the stage area.The good news is that next season, Pandora will not only expand its shows and number of performances, it will share the stage with the Bunbury Theatre in its new space at The Henry Clay complex downtown at Third and Chestnut streets.