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CurtainUp LA Review
Looking For Normal

By Laura Hitchcock

Looking for Normal is the kind of play that makes you want to see everything else its author, Jane Anderson, writes. In this one, Roy (Beau Bridges) plays a middle-class mid-Western John Deere employee who, after 25 years of marriage and fatherhood, finally faces his life-long secret: he believes he is a woman in a man's body and wants a sex change operation. "I don't believe you're a woman. Only a man could be so selfish!" screams Irma (Laurie Metcalf), Roy's beloved wife, and mother of 22-year-old Wayne (Jordan Bridges) and 13-year-old Patty Ann (Becky Wahlstrom).

Anderson's humor leavens the realism, perception and poignancy with which she treats a gender issue that could be confusing, camp or tragic. Her play opens in the rectory where Irma, knowing that something is wrong, has dragged Roy for a conference with their pastor, Reverend Muncie (Kelly Connell). Roy has blinding headaches and a limp libido and, with Irma out of the room, he confesses to the startled Reverend that he has been seeing a psychiatrist, decided to have a sex change operation and is ready to tell his wife. Right now.

Director Ron Lagomarsino does it dramatically and wordlessly. Blackout. Lights up to reveal the three of them staring at each other. Blackout.

We follow the changes in Roy's life through his final metamorphosis into dresses, high heels and long hair. Most dramatically, we see highlights of the effect on his family: Irma, who throws Roy out, tries kissing another man, saves Roy from suicide and finally realizes, when the Reverend urges her to move on, that Roy is her life. That raises major questions for son Wayne, a handyman for a rock band, who comes home for Thanksgiving. When he finds out his parents are sharing a bed again, he blows up at his dad. "As a man, you're straight. As a woman, you're gay. Does that make Mom a lesbian?"

Budding teen-age Patty Ann is more fascinated by and accepting of her father's change. She asks all those physical questions: "Will you have breasts? Long hair? Shave under your arms?" Struggling with the disturbances of puberty and the disadvantages of her own suddenly awkward body, Patty Ann can't understand why any man wants to change to a woman.

There's also the job and the parent issues. Roy's boss Frank (Dougald Park) finally decides to promote him early and get him out of the warehouse where the guys would beat him up. Frank and his wife are splitting and he and Irma exchange bewildered condolences and a passionate kiss that makes Irma realize that, without love, the physical doesn't do it for her.

Roy's father, Roy Sr., superbly played by Jim Haynie, is a farmer who goes through four daughters before getting the son he craves. His traditional macho values make him very tough on the boy. Roy's mother Em (Marjorie Lovett) is a warm tender woman who says, "I will always love all my children. Somebody has to."

Anderson extends her play with monologues from Roy's late Grandmother Ruth (Michael Learned) who abandoned her husband and 3-year-old son to drive ambulances during the war in Europe and just never came home. Apart from historical didacticism, Ruth's main function seems to be to clarify the varieties of love she enjoyed. She has a beautiful speech about not minding what she touches - male, female, an old person's wrinkles, a roll of fat, a sexual part - "when they belong to someone I love".

Ruth's character raises some questions which the playwright has left hanging. Although Roy names his new self after her, he doesn't know anything about her except that she left the family. Roy Sr., in his dotage, cries for the mother who abandoned him and who, in a monologue, justifies herself somewhat guiltily by saying he should be raised by people who were better parents.

There are other Anderson extensions such as e diagrams of sexual parts explained by Wayne and Patty Ann respectively, which would be better spent on Roy's character. Despite Beau Bridges' warm believable performance, Roy's scenes rarely go beyond reacting and his persona remains jovial throughout.

Irma, on the other hand, is the character with the arc. It is she who closes the show. As Roy is wheeled into the operating room for his sex change to Ruth, she addresses the audience in the final monologue and ends on the play's keynote: love.

Performances are uniformly excellent, with special kudos to the fiery sensitive Metcalf and Haynie's range from grouchy conservative to whimpering old child. Jordan Bridges finds the bewilderment, rebellion and pain in Wayne. Wahlstrom regresses amazingly to 13-year-old Patty Ann, making her alternatively bratty and lost. Ron Lagomarsino's direction makes the most of Anderson's comic timing, tableau turns and compassionate perception.

Written by Jane Anderson
Directed by Ron Lagomarsino
Cast: Beau Bridges (Ron), Laurie Metcalf (Irma), Kelly Connell (Reverend Muncie), Jim Haynie (Roy Senior), Marjorie Lovett (Em), Becky Wahlstrom (Patty Ann), Michael Learned (Grandmother Ruth), Jordan Bridges (Wayne), Dougald Park (Frank). Scenery by Scott Bradley
Lighting by Michael Lincoln
Original Music by Lewis Flinn
Costumes by Walker Hicklin
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission.
From April 3-May 6, 2001
Official Opening: April 11.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock April 12
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue., Westwood
Box Office: (310) 208-5454

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