Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, receiving its regional premiere at Edge Theater, brings us into an enclosed and semi-secret world: a 1962 Catskills retreat called Chevalier D’Eon, where men who like to dress as women come to liberate their secret female selves, socialize with others who understand them and, as one of them fervently explains, finally “breathe.” Of course, I’ve thought about cross-dressing before. I’ve read articles that discuss why men do it, the fact that not all cross-dressers are gay (though some are), the impact of cross-dressing on wives and families. But these realities are rarely depicted in drama, where cross-dressers are usually flashy drag queens and when a man dons heels, it’s purely for comic effect — though it may also be a metaphor for sexual freedom and a way of tweaking the angry and bigoted, some of whom are busy in North Carolina right now proving that even if sexual variation of all kinds is more familiar and accepted these days, they remain the sniggering, frightened, genitalia- and bathroom-obsessed ten-year-olds they always were. The approach of Casa Valentina, by contrast, is empathetic, thoughtful and quietly matter-of-fact.
You probably remember that Fierstein created the show-stopping role of Edna Turnblad, the heroine’s mother, in the original Hairspray on Broadway. (He’ll reprise the role on NBC’s Hairspray Live in December.) Casa Valentina is much less flamboyant than Hairspray, and the principals aren’t nearly as comfortable in their lives as cake-loving Edna. There’s George, or Valentina (Scott McLean), who owns the retreat with his remarkably understanding wife, Rita (Patty Ionoff). What he hasn’t told the guests is that the place is going broke. And also that he may be in serious legal trouble. George/Valentina’s predicament is a jolting reminder of just how dangerous any behavior tagged deviant could be in the days of women’s beehives and rigidly clean-shaven male chins. The Casa’s guests include The Judge/Amy (Jim Hunt), who’s close to retirement and terrified that any whisper of his proclivities could wreck both his professional and his personal life; handsome Michael/Gloria (James O’Hagan Murphy); Theodore/Terry (Chris Kendall); the ubiquitous, Oscar Wilde-quoting Albert/Bessie (Warren Sherrill), and tentative newcomer Jonathan/Miranda (Luke Sorge). Also Isadore/Charlotte, played by Stuart Sanks, the blond-wigged and coldly ambitious creator of a magazine and a cross-dressing sorority who’s determined to bring the practice out of the shadows and make it respectable — which in her mind means eliminating any taint of homosexuality.
The first act is funny, sweet and essentially good-natured, especially the scene where everyone excitedly piles on to help transform uptight young Jonathan into pretty Miranda. But things get harsher and uglier in the second act. How will Charlotte get her ruthless way? How did an envelope containing gay porn get sent to George/Valentina, and will he betray an old friend to acquit himself? Most important, will this nurturing refuge survive? Not all of these questions get fully answered, though you can surmise how things will turn out. Ultimately, the plot is serviceable but not entirely satisfying. There’s more talk than action, and when the action arrives, it feels a touch contrived.
But things are never boring or static, because the characters and their relationships are richly interesting. Josh Hartwell directs, and the performances are finely etched: Sanks’s Charlotte — ruthless, imperious, impressively loathsome; Sherrill’s Bessie, who’s campy and understated all at once and, by the end, quietly moving. You get Hunt’s careful, desperate Amy and Kendall’s Terry, who could be anybody’s sweetly mousey aunt. McLean gives a tightly controlled performance as George/Valentina until he finally allows the character’s emotional depths to surface. O’Hagan Murphy’s Gloria is prettily self-possessed, Sorge is a tightly frightened Miranda, and Haley Johnson delivers the somewhat one-note role of the judge’s daughter, Eleanor, with honor. Ionoff is particularly fine as Rita, self-effacing and always present, simultaneously this hidden world’s kindly mother figure and an off-balance, frightened child.
Casa Valentina, presented by the Edge Theater Company through May 22, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.