Playwright: Harvey Fierstein
At: The Broadway at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: $25-40; PrideFilmsAndPlays.com . Runs through: Sept. 29
They come to a small resort in the Catskills, bringing suitcases full of dresses, wigs and makeup. It's the early 1960s, and they've done everything right: holding down stable jobs, marrying and having children and grandchildren. They don't ask for much, just the odd weekend where they can feel comfortable being exactly who they are.
The characters in Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina are men who identify as straight and cisgender, and who always thought they were alone in their proclivities for dressing and acting as women. Based on true events, Fierstein's 2014 play chronicles 24 hours in the lives of several "normal" men who encounter a threat to their safe haven. Pride Films and Plays' Chicago premiere is a charming yet devastating exploration of the meaning of gender and its effect on identity in a conservative, turbulent time in America.
Jonathan ( Micah Kronlokken ) is new to the Casa Valentina resort, but he's always known he was also Miranda. He finds solace in the group of "self-made women" who are delighted to make him over and share their own stories, especially George/Valentina ( Patrick Byrnes ) who co-owns the resort with his supportive wife Rita ( Nicholia Q. Aguirre ). But when Charlotte ( Danne W. Taylor ), a West Coast legend in this small but tight-knit sorority, arrives with a plan to go public, the guests must decide between so-called legitimacy and tightly guarded privacy.
Fierstein's script contains the playwright and performer's trademark humor, emphasizing moments of solidarity in shared narratives and simple joy in putting on the perfect shade of red lipstick. While the guests band together and make each other laugh, they're also divided on issues like queerness: Valentina herself insists that the presence of "homosexuals" would sully the purity of the resort, while Terry ( Kingsley Day ) feels loyal to the gay men who welcomed her when no one else did. And when Charlotte reveals a secret about Amy ( Robert Koon ), a prominent judge, husband and grandfather in her everyday life, sanctity becomes chaos. Fierstein perfectly balances the sweetness of being fully understood with the fright of a carefully constructed faÃžade finally breaking.
Director Michael D. Graham navigates the complex story of Casa Valentina with skill, though he's far stronger with the one-on-one scenes than those when the whole ensemble is onstage. ( The play's climactic moment is a bit busy staging-wise, and the audience is unsure where exactly to focus. ) Actor standouts include Kronlokken's achingly vulnerable Jonathan, Josh Marshall's powder keg Gloria and Byrnes' Valentina, whose gradual loss of control over her personal Eden is both frustrating and heartbreaking to watch. For those who want to learn about a little-known facet of gender identity history, Pride Films and Plays' latest is a must.