The immortal words of pop icon Cher, “This is a song, for the lonely. Can you hear me tonight? For the broken hearted, battle scarred…” have never rang more true for me then during my most recent theatrical experience at the SoHo Playhouse, where the new play Southern Discomfort,written and performed by Elisabeth Gray, is currently playing on Monday nights. This powerhouse anthem to all who have felt loneliness in their lives (and truthfully, who hasn’t?) might actually be a bit too upbeat for the extremely lost and broken souls we meet in this play. Whether these words of loneliness are being belted out by Cher or brought vibrant to life by a truly gifted actress, their emotional impact still resonates.
In just over an hour, Ms. Gray remarkably portrays six different characters in this one-woman show that are all at different stages of loneliness and isolation. Southern Discomfort is a vivid and often disturbing look into the American South and the fascinating people who inhabit it. Ms. Gray has created a show based on real people and interactions she has had with Southerners in her life. As a native of the South, Ms. Gray has crafted a piece of theatre that showcases her amazing acting strengths, but more important is the emotional depth and truth she has discovered in these real-life stories she has collected over the years.
Many times throughout the show, one will find uncomfortable laughter as a coping mechanism to deal with the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, gun control, mental illness, and vanity that these characters bring to the table. Southern Discomfort easily finds humor in everyday situations, aptly earning its title by effectively evoking discomfort. Cheri Kane, a 52-year-old delivering a speech to the Olive Branch Mississippi Women’s Historical Society the day they are accepting their first African-American member, and Josh Robinson Riddle, the 19-year-old whose father accidentally shot off his right hand because he appeared to be involved in a compromising homosexual position with a friend, are easy to dismiss as “a typical Southern” on the surface, however the compassion and heart Ms. Gray is able to find struck me as particularly profound. Soon that uncomfortable laughter and discomfort dissipates and you are left with the challenging act of figuring out just how different these people are from you. During the monologue entitled “Gymnasium Eulogy,” a 63-year-old William Ernest Fells questions “I don’t know how people end up so lonely together?” as he delivers his first ever eulogy for his recently deceased wife. Throughout the eulogy William admits to loving his wife, yet we learn that they met on the day their cars collided on the side of the road, in turn paralyzing his then soon-to-be wife. William’s confusion and feelings of isolation bring to life an emotional state we have all been in during a time of grieving or that feeling of wanting something more when stuck in a broken or fractured relationship. This is another example of the emotional paradox that this little play channels.
The set, lighting, and costume designs for this show are effectively simple and fitting. One of the best parts of any one-person show, especially a show where there are multiple characters, is watching your leading player skillfully transition between characters. Elisabeth Gray accomplishes this task with a few simple props and costumes and creates fully-realized characters by the slight change of posture and modulation of her voice and accent. Daniel Zimbler’s direction is clear and honest and supports the main theme of loneliness.
As humans we are all emotionally rich, vibrant, and vivid to our cores, and Southern Discomfort brings the good, bad, marvelous, offensive, comic, and tragic parts of life to the front burner. Perhaps Cher isn’t your cup of tea on a day when you are feeling particularly lonely or vulnerable. But let’s face it. We all have our “go to” songs or places when in such a mood. It’s these similarities that make us more alike then different. And that’s one of the most beautiful parts of life.