What happens when a man, happily married for years, confesses he is a woman trapped in a man’s body? Always has been. Always will be. What indeed? No matter what you think of that scenario, I think you owe it to yourself to see Looking for Normal at Palo Alto Players. You owe it to yourself to see the scenario through the eyes of the man, his wife, his daughter, his son, his boss, his parents and his church. For two weeks now I’ve been quietly reflecting on this show, trying to find a way do justice to a play I find so intelligent and just so interesting. Ultimately, I don’t think I can adequately reflect the gentle, earnest poetry that is at this show’s heart in a review. But, I can recommend you experience it for yourself. And I do.
This show could have easily gone too farcical and thus really disrespectful to the intricately layered situation that faces our characters. It could have easily gone the way of a dark, victim-based drama too. But, instead of the extremes, Looking for Normal, masterfully walks the fine line between drama and comedy, dipping and peaking many times and while it started a bit slow for me, I was honestly not ready for it to end. I was fully vested in this production by the time the final line was quietly spoken.
All of these characters go through a transformation; we are witness to all of their struggles and evolutions. While obviously there is a very prominent physical transformation taking place, the other characters are also going through physical, metaphysical, psychological and emotional transformations which parallel and contrast each other. While I usually detest the use of monologues, especially when any sort of reality is trying to be established, the addresses to the audience, in this case, actually work. They take us through the thought-process of this family and extended family unit and I think that’s what I appreciated about the show the most. It’s not one-sided, it’s not preachy, it doesn’t tell you how you should feel or talk about right or wrong. There are no answers because it doesn’t present itself as an argument. One fact affects everyone in a different way and we see them all struggle, grasp and in their own way, recover.
These are strong, stable characters presented with challenges that truly rocked the core of their universe and yet after the initial shock, when the world stops spinning, rather than fall apart entirely, there was a desire and a commitment to literally get back to normal, even if they had to redefine drastically what that meant. It was refreshing to see them searching for a way to carry on rather than quit outright. And, it didn’t seem to matter if the future wasn’t entirely set either, it could still somehow feel hopeful and logical and real without being tidy or convenient. A life already made became a sudden work-in-progress which is the opposite of what I’m so used to seeing on the stage and another reason this play deserves to be seen.
The casting was really quite exceptional it its attention to detail. The casting and the direction play to type when it behooves the play to so and against type when it needs to. I can’t share too much without giving away some especially lovely moments, but there’s a line about hands, a simple line with a clear, raw delivery that for me lauded the importance of the craft of casting to equal that of good acting or good writing. What a wonderland of hidden art there was woven almost imperceptibly into the details.
Staging, lights, set, costumes, all of it was just as it needed to be, neither standing out, nor leaving anyone in the dark, so to speak. The straight forward design and practical usage of the space seemed natural and allowed us to really just focus on the characters move through their various metamorphoses.
This is a show that I think drives home a message of love, faith and compassion without being preachy or even remotely controversial. Like a kiss good night after a bedtime story, it’s a beautiful, cleverly put together show, focused on feelings and the actions taken to live fully, freely, honestly and in the end happily with those feelings. An easy 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a show with texture, emotion, courage, talent and a tremendous capacity to open our eyes to new definitions of normal. Looking for Normal plays through February 3rd at the Lucie Stern Center Theater in Palo Alto.