A funny thing happened on the way toward intermission Sunday afternoon at The Mermaid Hour, David Valdes Greenwood’s new play at Milagro: I changed my mind. Radically.
I’d been looking forward to Mermaid, part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program (see T.J. Acena’s smart background story for ArtsWatch). But for much of the first act it seemed schematic, an argument in the guise of a drama, and I found myself observing rather than feeling – yet another issue play, more interested in the issue than the lives. A relatively progressive couple, Pilar and Bird (Nelda Reyes and Jed Arkley) have a transgender daughter, Violet (Jaryn Lasentia), who is 12 years old and pushing for hormone treatment and falling deeply for her best friend, Jacob (Kai Hynes), who’s gay. Bird’s Mr. Negative, and Pilar’s Mrs. Empathetic, and wrong thinking will be corrected, and lessons will be learned, and as people used to say back when telegrams were a thing, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
And then the ground began to shift. Things got muddy, and messy, and complicated, and the stick figures took on flesh and blood. And by the first act’s closing scene, in which Lasentia delivers Violet’s raw and tender and beautifully written monologue about being a mermaid – neither one thing nor the other but happiest in that in-between hour when her possibilities seem limitless – I was well and truly hooked.
Throughout the second act I was fully pulled into the complex lives of these imperfect, impatient, vulnerable, pained, and compassionate characters, and cared very much about how and whether they would muddle through. And the lesson was not so much political (although this play could help shift the way some people think about gender issues) but the one in which good art excels: a broadening and deepening understanding of human beings and the world in which we live.
Greenwood’s play, directed here by Sacha Reich, embraces the fact that transgender identity is vastly more complex, and human, than the opportunistic political cynicism of who gets to go to the bathroom where. (That trumped-up “issue” doesn’t even get mentioned.) It’s about the rub between personal identity and public expectation, the frustration of being outside of norms and perhaps outcast because of it, the hopes and fears of parents and friends, the knotty path toward acceptance of what is, and being able to embrace it. The Mermaid Hour’s journey is a personal and emotional one, but its effect on public perception and political stances is undeniable, too, as it’s been for other emancipation movements that have faced often fierce backlashes. As James Baldwin noted in The Fire Next Time, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
The Mermaid Hour is very much about dealing with pain, but it’s not so much the pain of people who hate as the pain of people who love: the parents, the daughter who was a son, the best friend, the best friend’s mother (Barbie Wu), who has accepted her own son’s gayness but is thrown for a loop when she discovers him and Violet checking each other’s equipment. Pilar has second thoughts when she realizes that sex reassignment surgery (or, as it’s coming to be known, gender confirmation surgery) probably means Violet won’t be able to have children. Bird, in a deeply felt monologue, remembers introducing Violet/Vick to baseball and the way they bonded over it, and his complex feelings about gaining a daughter but losing the son he thought he had. Mika, Jacob’s mother, who’s accepted her son’s gay identity, reassesses her feelings when it comes to Violet. Violet takes a drastic step. Jacob feels he’s been betrayed. And Michael Cavazos, in the dual roles of a perhaps imaginary mermaid figure and Crux, a counselor who’s been through this stuff himself, provides a gentle helping hand. Reich’s cast approaches all of these shifts and bumps with skill and delicacy: Reyes in particular, as Pilar, comes across with a sense of benevolent grace. But the glue, the core of the thing, is Lasentia’s sturdy and yearning Violet, a performance that rings utterly true.
The Mermaid Hour raises the hope that rationality – learning the facts of a matter, and then applying logic to the emotional pull of preconceived notions – can change minds and hearts. The sea change in attitudes toward homosexuality by the majority of Americans has come about at least partly because Americans have come to realize that many of their friends and neighbors and family are gay, and they’re just people, like anyone else. But we are living in anti-rational times, and that hope seems submerged beneath a wave of general anger and fear. Then again, a mermaid can breathe equally well in water or in air: when its hour arrives, it will emerge.
The Mermaid Hour strikes me as a play that could still use a little work: those early scenes could be less didactic and more emotionally complex; the character of the dream or metaphorical mermaid seems to drop clumsily into the action, like a great big capital-S Symbol. But what’s here is smart and moving and welcoming, nudging a necessary conversation forward with a gentle and illuminating feel for human consequences. Do I recommend it? Absolutely.
The Mermaid Hour continues through April 14 at Milagro Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.