Casa Valentina

As I settled in for Casa Valentina, the new play from theatre luminary Harvey Fierstein, I was ready for something to bowl me over. I see a lot of theatre and it had been about a month since I saw something that really excited me. (For those of you keeping score, at the time I saw Casa Valentina, the last thing to excite me was If/Then.) And after the first act of Casa Valentina, I thought I’d found it. The second act disappointed by comparison, but still made for a good production of a good new play.

Casa Valentina is “inspired by events that took place in and around the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskill Mountains in 1962,” playwright Fierstein and director Joe Mantello say in program notes. It was at this resort that heterosexual men who identify as women could relax and dress as themselves, that is, dress in women’s clothing, complete with well-coiffed wigs, perfectly applied make up, undergarments galore, jewelry and heels. (This is an earnest, sincere tale—it is not a gay minstrel show.)

Though everything centers on gender identity, the action of the play diverges into two concurrent arcs that help explore the issue. One is Jonathon/Miranda’s journey, brought beautifully to life by Tony Award winner Gabriel Ebert (Matilda). (He’s twitchy and awkward and giddy and defensive and vulnerable. Terrific performance.) This is Jonathon’s first time at the resort, and the first time he’s dressed and lived as Miranda outside of his basement. (He is newly married and afraid his wife won’t understand.)

Watching his experience brings to light the camaraderie and sisterhood these people felt for one another. From the moment he arrives, as Jonathon, everyone, from Bessie (a delightful Tom McGowan) to the resort owners, Rita (Mare Winningham) and her husband/in-law George/Valentina (Patrick Page), opens their arms. When he finally changes into Miranda’s clothing, the other ladies immediately realize he needs some help and insist on a makeover (it’s nice, not queen bee-ish). And make her over they do, so that Jonathan transforms into Miranda. The moment Miranda sees her made over self for the first time is so simple and so profound. (Great direction from Mantello (Dogfight, The Other Place) throughout.)

As the story picks up the other arc, it loses a little steam. Fierstein makes a slight detour into preachy as the ladies argue the virtues of incorporating their sorority (i.e., filing with the IRS and becoming an officially recognized not-for-profit organization), especially as it relates to whether or not to allow homosexuals into the organization.

But even that slight detour opens the door for thoroughly interesting conversations and explorations of the layered issue of gender identity and its expression. (Or even, more broadly, discovering who we are and letting our outward appearance show it.)

I think gender identity is something that is still vastly misunderstood, if it’s understood at all—especially when it comes to heterosexuals dressing in garb that is traditionally for the other gender. I think of myself as enlightened and an LGBT ally, and I don’t fully understand it. What is fascinating and affecting about Casa Valentina is the way it illuminates the essence of gender identity and its inherent struggles, particularly as it acknowledges the fact that—as also noted in the program notes—each lady has her own reason(s) for dressing that way. (Watch Patrick Page (A Time to Kill) rip off George’s clothes, like a feral animal, and the relief that overwhelms him when he can breathe in the clothes that feel most natural. It’s primal, reminiscent of the way Mark Rothko and his apprentice attacked the blank canvas in John Logan’s Red.)

Casa Valentina is full of Harvey Fierstein’s trademark humor, eloquent phrasing and heart. It’s also full of a sensational ensemble. One of my favorite stage actors, Reed Birney (Uncle Vanya), excels as Charlotte (and is even a passable woman), a pioneer in the gender identity movement. Nick Westrate is strong, imbuing Gloria with pluck, courage and a level head. Veterans John Cullum (The Scottsboro Boys) and Larry Pine are effective as Terry and The Judge/Amy. And as the only GGs (that would be “genuine girls” or “genetic girls”) in the show, Winningham (Picnic) and Lisa Emery (...Tom Durnin) hold their own.

In a crowded season, and a particularly crowded part of the season, this is easily one of my favorite plays on the boards right now.

To learn more about Casa Valentina and to purchase tickets, visit the show's website.