Little Town Hall production mostly hits the mark in exploration of transvestites in the 1960s

Casa Valentina may be a story about a transvestite retreat in the 1960s, but don’t go expecting a La Cage aux Folles-style farce. This production offers some comic relief, but it’s sprinkled amid mostly hard conversations and observations about sexual identity and acceptance.

Littleton Town Hall’s production is thought-provoking and well-cast, whose complex characters ask questions that remind us how far we’ve come in accepting gender fluidity, the courage it took to get there – and how much of that progress hangs in the balance.

Casa Valentina is a retreat at which white-collar professional men indulge their love of all things feminine. Owned by a transvestite husband and his straight and unfailingly loyal – though not unquestioning – wife, it seems the perfect place for an escape from traditional roles. But it’s also a setting conducive to tough conversations and deep questions about sexuality and the impact non-traditional choices had then (and in many ways still have) on those who make them, as well as their families and society at large.

This show demands a lot of its nine-member cast, most of whom are on stage at all times. The set – inside Casa Valentina – changes almost not at all.

Tough topics

Transgender is a tough subject, and the play by Harvey Fierstein does a good job addressing several sides — although it certainly didn’t provide ready answers. The script is complex and thoughtful and, while the humor didn’t always hit the right note, there were some excellent comedic lines. Like La Cage aux Folles, it has a dark side that explores some difficult areas of sexual orientation and beliefs.

The characters were well written, but overall the opening-weekend acting seemed a bit flat. It felt like what they were – male actors playing female roles. Missing were the feminine mannerisms and passion these roles demand.

There were, however, a couple of standouts — Terry (Bob Wells) did well despite some dropped lines. And Bessie (Bill Kahn) – although one of the more flamboyant characters – was delightful, as well as the most human and believable. While Charlotte (Sam Gilstrap) had some passionate lines, they still felt rehearsed.

The gun-toting judge (Mark Collins) transforms with surprising ease into Amy to deliver some of the play’s most poignant lines.

Playing both the male George and female Valentina, Phil Luna did a good job straddling the gender lines. He conveys volumes with a mere lipstick application in the final scene, while he begins again his transformation from George to Valentina.

The lead female, Valentina’s wife Rita (Melissa McCarl) started weak. Her voice did not carry well initially, lines came a bit too fast and didn’t feel genuine. But she gained strength in both volume, believability and passion by the second act.

Daughter Eleanor (Emily Tuckman) is also good in the play’s shortest role. She unpacks a heavy load of pain and anger that hits on the complicated, deep emotions experienced by all the characters we never see – the transvestites’ family members. Eleanor’s anger is so vitriolic it borders on ridiculous, making the audience consider whether the energy expended in rejecting and damning those who cross sexual boundaries is in any way justified, or almost illogically destructive.

American society has come a long way in accepting transgender since the 1960s, the decade in which this play is set. But especially in today’s political environment, the fears, questions and pain this play raises haven’t been completely resolved or put to rest. Perhaps they never will be.

If any generation can do it, my money’s on today’s young adults. Millennials appear to hold the greatest promise for overcoming fears about transgender and other non-traditional sexuality. My niece recently summed it up well when, after expressing a list of qualities she feels her generation lacks, she optimistically concluded: “You know one thing I think we’re really good at: Acceptance. That’s where I think we shine.”