Which of the following does not belong?
A) Former slaves; B) A Confederate soldier; C) Drag queens; D) An antebellum home.
Fans of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte know that’s a trick question: They all spring from the brain of Matthew Lopez.
ATC produced “The Whipping Man,” his potent drama about a Jewish family after the Civil War, in the playwright’s 2013 Charlotte debut. Now Lopez comes back with “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” as unrecognizable as the main character after he dons heels, wigs and tights.
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I don’t know which is closer to Lopez’ heart, but “McBride” is closer to the gay author’s life: He told the New York Times he was bullied in childhood and closeted until college. Though the straight protagonist of “McBride” cross-dresses to pay rent, the play’s message — be whatever you want, love whoever you are — resonates beyond the snappy dialogue, lip-synced show tunes and sitcom-style construction.
Perhaps the truest line comes during an angry monologue by a once-bullied character: “Drag’s a protest, a raised fist in a sequined glove.” That speech, ferociously delivered by Ryan Stamey as Anorexia “Rexy” Nervosa, provides a moment of gravity among extended frivolity.
Casey (Sean Riehm), a failed Elvis impersonator in Panama City, Fla., faces eviction from his apartment. Desperate club owner Eddie (James K. Flynn) invites Tracy Mills (Paul Reeves Leopard) to revive his failing joint with drag shows. On opening night, Rexy falls literally into a drunken stupor, so Casey reluctantly becomes Georgia McBride. Large tips convince him to keep on, presumably to settle bills but really to enjoy audience acclaim.
Jo (Juanita B. Green), Casey’s wife, drops in at the club where he ostensibly tends bar – after six months, an absurdly long interval – and is horrorstruck. Their awkward split precedes an inevitable, equally awkward reconciliation. With its intermission-free format, short scenes and frequent blackouts, “McBride” starts to feel like a formulaic Hollywood comedy.
Clunky plot aside, it offers a lot of pleasure. The dialogue earns guffaws, especially when Tracy contemplates drag names for Casey. (My favorite: Shelita Buffet.) “Men are a lot like pantyhose,” Tracy muses. “They’re either gonna run, cling or not fit right in the crotch.”
Our main joy comes from seeing Casey come into his own as an artist, growing from a sour imitation of Edith Piaf to the embodiment of various icons of femininity. He does that in an extended and captivating drag medley, alternating with the already expert Tracy; their excerpt from “Valley of the Dolls” succeeds even if you don’t know what they’re spoofing, and director Billy Ensley stages this long sequence wittily.
But Lopez can’t seem to make up his mind about the locale, which is apparently so bigotry-ridden that Rexy fears attacks yet so welcoming that Eddie’s club becomes a sensation. (Gaytravel.com calls Panama City “highly renowned for the sultry spring break attitude, family-friendly fun and… abundance of beautiful eye-candy,” so perhaps he’s being too rough on it.)
Would Jo really be revolted by Casey’s choice, especially after he lifts them out of grinding poverty? He’s not questioning his gender identity; he’s an actor exploring his gifts, leaving a humdrum life and immersing himself in another psyche. “Georgia McBride” really pays tribute to the transformative power of art: It helps us all discover who we are, not who we thought we were or wanted to be.
“The Legend of Georgia McBride”
WHEN: Through Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes, no intermission.
DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.