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Theatre in Review: Charm (MCC Theater)

Sandra Caldwell, Hailie Sahar. Photo: Joan Marcus

Philip Dawkins' Charm is based on the unlikely true story of Miss Gloria Allen, a transgender woman of a certain age who, several years ago, began hosting a charm school at the Center on Halsted, Chicago's gay community center. Clearly, Miss Gloria is an unusual personality and Charm makes the most of her, especially in the performance of Sandra Caldwell. Beautifully turned out in a series of tailored suits -- fine work by the costume designer, Oana Botez -- her voice perfectly modulated, her hand gestures seemingly the result of close study of Judy Garland's concerts, Mama -- as she is called here -- is an ideal evangelist for the gospel of Emily Post. For Mama, politeness is a kind of fortress that has kept her safe in the toughest of times.

With her stately manners, she is also a blast from the past, and one wonders how she is going to communicate with her charges, many of whom have been rejected by their families and are living on the street, some working as prostitutes. Dawkins slyly previews this conflict by juxtaposing Mama, who wouldn't be out of place at a 1950s ladies' luncheon, with D, who runs the gay center. D steadfastly refuses to conform to any gender identity -- D's preferred pronoun is "they" -- and their mutual attempts at communication produce some richly comic exchanges. Caldwell's knack for silently, stealthily registering disapproval is put to excellent use in these scenes.

The action tilts toward the improbable when the members of Mama's class are introduced. They include Donnie and Victoria, an ostensibly heterosexual ex-con and his baby mama; Jonelle and Ariela, transwomen who spend most of their time locked in a catfight; Lady, who appears to be caught between gender identities and is in a panic about it; Logan, who, when he attends college a year hence, will be the gayest thing Notre Dame has ever seen; and Beta, a member of a gay street gang (Who knew?).

It's hard to imagine what Mama can do for this bunch, and, at its best, Charm is candid about the pain these young people endure and the overwhelming odds against which they struggle. Then again, these truths are often glossed over by sitcom-style plotting. Mama wins them over all too quickly, partly with the frankly unbelievable possibility of a tea party at the Drake Hotel. Each of the students has a secret, which is trotted out dutifully at its appointed time, yet we hear very little about their family lives or how they get by. The character of Lady is particularly vexing; in the early scenes, she appears to be borderline psychotic, a point that is dropped without explanation. Of course, Mama is nursing a viper in this bunch, and the big betrayal comes at just the point where it is expected. And Mama has health problems that kick in conveniently when a climax is called for.

Still, if the director, Will Davis, can't smooth over the script's rough edges -- especially its inability to deal with the fact that Mama is less than honest about herself -- he gets excellent work from a cast of new faces. Caldwell, who has come out as transgender after decades of theatre work, is a total pleasure; if this role doesn't do great things for her, I'll be very surprised. Michael David Baldwin and Lauren F. Walker spar amusingly as Donnie and Victoria, whose family life -- they have children -- isn't all that it seems. Jojo Brown gently exposes the tender heart behind Jonelle's tough exterior. Marky Irene Diven gives the amorphous character of Lady a sharp profile; there's something especially touching about the way Lady pours over a stolen copy of Emily Post, studying it like Scripture. Despite the fact that Logan seems to have wandered in from the set of Will & Grace, Michael Lorz handles the role with elan. Hailie Sahar is a real attention-getter as Ariela, whose devotion to Mama curdles when she fears it isn't returned. As D, Kelli Simpkins puts some real snap into her exchanges with Mama.

The entire production package is aces, beginning with Arnulfo Maldonado's all-purpose-room set, which is transformed as needed into a variety of locations by Ben Stanton's seamless lighting. Botez's meticulously detailed costumes go a long way toward establishing each character's personal style. Palmer Hefferan's sound design blends American standards with hip-hop as well as a number of ambient effects. Even if Charm handles its hot-button topic in less-than-incisive fashion, it is certainly full to the brim with its title quality. -- David Barbour

(10 October 2017)

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