In “Casa Valentina,” Harvey Fierstein’s moving play about a group of East Coast businessmen in the early 1960s who escape on a regular basis to a summer resort to dress as women, the word “pass” takes on a fascinating meaning.
The greatest goal for these men is to pass as women among general company. Some are better at it than others. (Makeup can only do so much.) But the goal is to assimilate, as one character explains. For these closeted transvestites, all of whom are married and lead straight and narrow outward lives, the greatest accomplishment in their periodic weekends of gendered freedom is for someone in the “real world” world to glance at them and immediately think: That person is a female.
The idea of “passing” is but one of many complex and provocative details about these men we learn in this play, which comes to life in a meaningful and earnest production from StageWorks Fresno. But it struck me as particularly poignant. These men ache to belong, not just to a cloistered group of like-minded friends but to larger society. Given the era in which they live and the struggles ahead for men like them, you know as an audience member that the road ahead isn’t easy.
One of the strengths director J. Daniel Herring brings to the production is that he captures this palpable sense of wanting to “pass.” (In a summer season of family-friendly musicals, the production stands out in one sense just for daring to be different.) In Herring’s sensitive hands, the pain is never drawn out in a maudlin way. And the laughs – there are some sharp ones – are never cheap or voyeuristic. These men don’t dress up as a joke.
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Fierstein based his script on the real-life proprietors of the fading Catskills resort where the men gather. George (Richard Ruth) and Rita (Jennifer Leigh Lewis) are that rare couple in which the wife is understanding of her husband’s desire to dress as a woman. (The other men we meet don’t have such convenient relationships.) Together, George, who becomes Valentina when he dresses, and Rita have come up with a (sort of) sustainable business plan: their cozy and welcoming inn.
On the Friday evening of what turns out to be a momentous weekend, we meet the “regulars,” who are a merry and motley bunch. Bessie (Joel C. Abels) is a decorated war hero always ready with a wisecrack. Terry (Douglas Clayton Cox) is the grouchiest of the bunch. Gloria (Randy Kohlruss), a Marilyn Monroe-type bombshell, plays the catty role. The Judge (Michael Peterson) shows up in uber-masculine hunting clothes, only to change into Amy in a sleeveless dress.
There’s a dishy rapport between them all born of familiarity and a shared sense of us-against-the-world.
But on this weekend there are two newcomers. One is the shy Jonathan (Justin Case Ray), who’s never dressed as a woman in front of other people before. And, more consequential, is Charlotte (Billy Jack Anderson), who has arrived to ask the men to form an East Coast chapter of a blossoming national sorority of transvestites, a step in her quest to increase public acceptance of her lifestyle.
One of the undercurrents exposed by Charlotte’s visit is where homosexuality falls into the picture. The sorority is adamantly against it, and Charlotte boldly predicts that 50 years from now, homosexuals will still be scorned, while men who “dress” will be open and accepted members of society.
Playing a “serious” transvestite is a challenge for any actor. The idea isn’t to “pass” for an audience as a woman; the hard part is playing a man playing a woman, so to speak. Abels, the designated class clown, is very strong in this regard, serving as an acting anchor. Another standout in my eyes is Anderson as the stern interloper of the bunch. Every choice he makes on stage, every movement and line he delivers, creates a remarkable character. Billy Jack completely disappeared for me; in that moment, he was Charlotte.
Other cast members have fine moments as well, from Kohlruss’ sharp-edged, outspoken advocacy to Ray’s quiet determination. Peterson’s slow burn of rage and hurt late in the play help propel it to its climax. Cox delivers some nice one-liners, and Shannon Brewington, in a small and nicely calibrated role, delivers a compelling argument that being true to yourself can come with consequences.
As the only GG (genuine girl) on stage throughout most of the production, Lewis as Rita is by turns sassy, introspective and rock-solid steady.
Ruth, who brings impressive professional credentials (and a wonderfully deep, penetrating voice) to StageWorks, is often riveting as Valentina. But on opening night, he was a little unsteady at times, with some flubbed lines and an occasionally halting delivery. More than that, I think Herring could have helped him better navigate some of the play’s fierce emotional exchanges, including one between Valentina and Gloria, and another between Valentina and Rita, that didn’t feel wholly natural to me, never crescendoing to quite the right pitch. (As the run progresses, I’m confident things will get smoother.)
Herring’s direction is mostly seamless, but one outdoors scene involving most of the actors freezing while we focus on an intense exchange between two characters seemed clunky to me on opening night. (I honestly thought on the first abrupt dimming of the lights that there’d been a power outage.)
The production design is very strong, from Aaron Lowe’s multi-level set and Jennifer Malatesta’s lights to Kyle Jensen’s period-piece sound design, Sarah Puckett’s makeup design and Eric Gomez’s hair and wig design. (It isn’t often that you’re asked to come up with a bad-looking wig on stage.)
And then there’s Elizabeth Payne’s top-notch costumes, designed with a subtle unified color palette of browns, burgundies and blues. She outfits these men-as-women in an array of feminine garb, from frumpy housecoats and high-heel shoes to elegant gowns and a baby-blue dress that suggests what Violet (“The Blueberry”) Beauregarde in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” would wear to a tea party. Instead of garish colors and wild fashion statements, Payne captures the sincerity of these men, which makes their stories all the more compelling.
There’s a temptation while watching “Casa Valentina” to feel infused with just a little superiority as we look back from the future. Our culture’s attitudes toward homosexuality and cross-dressing have surely evolved by leaps and bounds from 1962, right?
Yet it’s startling to hear a mention of public restrooms and men who dress as women in the play, a battle being played out in our contemporary political climate. For all that “Casa Valentina” plays out as a period piece, it reminds us there are always people struggling to belong.